Tag Archives: Chanukah

On The Eighth Night of Chanukah

The following message was shared on the final night of Chanukah with the Congregation Beth El community:


Tonight, as we celebrate the final night of Chanukah, we’ll admire the full illumination of the chanukiyah, the Chanukah menorah. Every candle will be lit, every flame will be burning bright. Lighting the menorah to its full brilliance is joyful, even though we know it means that the conclusion of the holiday is near.

The uniqueness of the commandment to kindle the lights of the menorah is the requirement to first light the shamash, the helper candle, and to use that candle to light others. It is an acknowledgement that sometimes we cannot create light on our own. We depend on others to help us see the light; to help us be the light. 

That is the essence of community. The beauty of Beth El is our obligation, responsibility, and opportunity to be the light for one another. We are there as the shamash to help you find light during times of grief and mourning, and we are there to help spread your light during celebration. Our community can also serve as sliver of light in a sometimes dark world, standing up for each other — and with each other — in the face of adversity. 

As powerful as a single candle in the darkness is on that first night of Chanukah, it pales in comparison to the power of the fully lit menorah tonight. The light of a single flame is increased by the other candles of the menorah. So too, our light — our own unique light as individuals — has the power to light up the darkness. But our own light is increased when surrounded by the light of others.

We find that light through learning, and we find that light through witnessing our children learn. We spread that light through prayer, and we find that light through activism. We light up each other as we build community together. 

As we watch the candles slowly burn this evening, let us be inspired by the power of the light of a full menorah. Let us remember the power of being unified, of coming together, of being there for one another and knowing that others will be there for us. May the lights of the menorah inspire us to be that light for each other, and may we always find that light in our community.

Chag Urim Sameach!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Holidays

We’ve Been Down this Hole Before

You can’t go to the midnight opening showing of Episode VIII without understanding the seven Star Wars movies that have come before it. Similarly, as amazing as the events of Parashat Mikketz are, you can’t truly appreciate them without understanding them in relation to Parashat Vayeshev
In Parashat Vayeshev, Joseph’s brothers, out of jealousy and hatred towards him, throw him into a pit. They literally have a picnic as they debate what his destiny should be. The compromise is selling him into slavery, but his seemingly hopeless future begins in a pit. It is as literal as it is metaphoric. The Torah says:

“And they took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty. There was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:24) 

The rabbis believed that no word in the Torah was superfluous. So then why the need to say both? If we know the pit was empty, then why also stipulate that there was no water in it? Rashi tries to clarify and says there were snakes and scorpions in the pit, which of course there’s no justification for, and makes no sense if the Torah already said the pit was empty. I believe that calling the pit empty was a reflection of how Joseph felt at that moment. He felt empty, alone, lost, and by himself, with no one and nothing to guide him. In Mesechet Taanit, the Talmud refers to Torah as water. Our commentators thus suggest that “there was no water in it” means that Joseph was in an empty pit, without Torah. He did not have the ethics and values to guide him and he did not know what to do next. He was stuck in a hole and there was nobody there to help him out.

Yet, after all of that, what happens in Parashat Mikketz is really miraculous. After being abandoned by his brothers, after being framed by Potiphar’s wife, after being forgotten in prison by those that he helped save, Joseph is called upon to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. I believe what he does next is not just out of fear of Pharaoh or a sense of obligation to do what Pharaoh asks. Joseph doesn’t just interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph ends up saving an entire population from famine, from food insecurity. He was in that empty pit – literally – and lost – metaphorically – and he turns around and is able to save everyone. When Pharaoh, and all of Egypt, are lost and similarly in their own empty pit, Joseph knows that experience and is able to help them out. 

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite shows, The West Wing, which I encourage binge watching on a regular basis. If you watch it enough, you might even forget for a moment about the current realities of our society and government. I’m not sure if this story originates from The West Wing, but even if not, it is retold in a way that only Aaron Sorkin is able to do. In season two, Josh Lyman, Deputy Chief of Staff, is dealing with PTSD, following being shot in an assassination attempt on the President at the end of season one. He is dealing with serious trauma in his life. Leo McGarry, the White House Chief of Staff, who is a recovering addict, and has his own share of dealing with personal trauma, shares this story with his colleague: 

This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'”

Joseph had been down that hole of hopelessness. When he sees Pharaoh and Egypt stuck in the same hole, he doesn’t take charge and action because he sees an opportunity for his dreams to be fulfilled, for him to rise in power and prominence. He does so because he was in that hole before, empty and devoid of the values to guide us on our path, and he knew what it felt like, so he jumped in to help Egypt out of that hole. 

The essence of Chanukah, of placing the light of our chanukiyot in our windows, is a powerful message. We are actually prohibited from using that light to benefit us. Shabbat candles had a practical purpose. You lit candles as it went dark, and you used that light to light up the room, the dinner table, etc. You can read by the candle light, and when the candles burn out, it is dark and time for bed. But the Talmud stipulates that you can’t use the light of the Chanukah candles for your own benefit. They are solely meant to go in our windows to follow the commandment of pirsum hanes, to publicize the miracle. But more so than that, we place the menorah in our windows to share our light with those who need it most. We light up the darkness that others are feeling. Because we have been there. We have been in that dark place before. That is why we are taught to increase the number of candles each night of Chanukah, to always add more light to the darkness. That is our challenge and that is our goal. That is what Joseph did. He was there. And so he knew what it felt like. And that is our goal too! We have been in this hole before. So when we experience someone else struggling with darkness, we put our menorahs in the window. We jump down the hole with them, because we know the way out.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Holidays

Be The Shamash

The following Chanukah message was shared at the beginning of the festival with the Congregation Beth El community:

The Chanukiyah, the Chanukah Menorah, serves more than just a ritual purpose. We are taught that when we light the Menorah, we should place it in the window for all to see. By doing so, we fulfill the mitzvah of Pirsum HaNes — of publicizing the Chanukah miracle. During the winter solstice, at the darkest point in the year, the flames of the Menorah add light to the darkness.

The Talmud mentions how Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel debated the proper way to light the Menorah. But regardless of their differing perspectives, there was universal agreement that you use a shamash, a helper candle, to light all the other candles. To this day, the shamash is on a different level than all the other candles of the Menorah, emphasizing its significance.

We look around the world and it is easy to be consumed by the darkness of society. But doing so means that we forget the miracles that surround us everyday. On Chanukah, we don’t only celebrate the miraculous military victory of the Maccabees, or even the miracle of oil burning for eight nights. The miracle of Chanukah is to appreciate the miracles in our lives, despite the darkness that we all too often may feel or experience.

When we celebrate the miracles in our lives, no matter how large or small they may be, we also understand our responsibility to be a metaphorical shamash. With each day, the light of the Menorah increases, until all nine candles (including the shamash) burn on the final night of the festival. The use of the shamash reminds us how easy it is to light up the darkness. Just as the light of the shamash spreads to other candles and quickly illuminates the night, we must also be the initial spark to illuminate the darkness, helping to inspire and enlighten others. 

May we appreciate the miracles of old and the miracles in our everyday lives. And may we never stop trying to light up the darkness. Chag Urim Sameach! Wishing you a joyous and inspiring Chanukah!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Miracle of Civil Discourse

There was only enough oil to last for one night, and miraculously it lasted for eight whole nights!

This is the Chanukah story we teach our children in school and what is generally accepted as the root of our Chanukah celebration. Yet oil lasting for longer than expected is hardly a miracle, and such a story is hardly a reason to establish in annual festival. Rather, the lighting of the Menorah, and its flames continuing to burn, holds greater significance than we realize.

The Menorah had been lit at one of the darkest moments in Jewish history. The Temple desecrated, and more alarming was that many Jews had assimilated and embraced the cultural trends of the Assyrian-Greeks. The guerrilla warfare of Chanukah and the Maccabean revolt was not Jew vs. Assyrian-Greek. It was Jew vs. Jew. This civil war pitted the Jewish community against itself and put the future of Judaism in serious jeopardy. When the Menorah was lit, and the Temple was rededicated, the light became a symbol of something greater. The light served as a new beginning.

ArguingOur tradition teaches that the Jewish people are an ohr la’goyim, a light unto the world. We believe that we have insight to share, and ethics and values to teach. Yet, I fear that often, we spend too much time in civil war. Disagreement is good. Discussion is healthy. Much “discussion” we find in the Talmud is deemed a Machloket L’Shem Shamayim, a disagreement for the Sake of Heaven. Sometimes, disagreements are holy disagreements.

But recently, the Jewish community has gotten to a point where it seems we can’t even talk to each other. We won’t come to the table with those that we disagree with. We take to social media not to reasonably discuss and debate, but to seemingly belittle others’ opinions, embarrassing them in the process. Our broad Jewish community needs to reframe our conversations and reframe our relationships.

As we light our Chanukiyot this holiday season, let us not only focus on the historic rededication of the Temple that once stood in Jerusalem. Let us also rededicate ourselves – to civility, to unity, and to an understanding that despite our deepest of disagreements, we still must strive to be Am Echad Im Lev Echad: one people with one heart.

We cannot be a light unto the world until we are a light unto ourselves. On Chanukah we are taught not only to say Chag Sameach, meaning “happy holiday,” but also to say Chag Urim Sameach, meaning “may you have a happy and light-filled holiday.” At this darkest time of the year, when the shortened days mean the sky is dark when we awake and dark when we return home, may our paths be illuminated by the light of the original Menorah, and our own individual menorahs that we light. May we rededicate ourselves to civility, to our ability to come together as community. May we embrace each other and respect each other, regardless of our opinions. If we can do that, then that would be a true miracle!

This blog post was originally published in the Winter 2015-2016 edition of the Congregation Beth El Bulletin. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Holidays, Uncategorized