From the Rabbi - December 2017 Print

It may seem like an odd admission from a rabbi but I rather like Xmas! While I obviously appreciate it as an observer rather than as an active participant there is something to be said for a season when all our neighbors are focusing on goodwill to all people.  I like the movies (A Muppet’s Christmas Carol probably being my favorite!) and I particularly enjoy all the lights.  As I celebrate Chanukah, a festival of lights, it is lovely to see all the other lights as well!

But in the most recent issue of the Forward magazine an article by David Zvi Kalman raises an interesting question.  Why does Chanukah, a festival focused on light, maintain its focus on lighting candles rather than lighting up the night as we now can (and often do!) with electric light.  Today artificial lighting has become plentiful, safe, and cheap, but prior to the 20th century creating light was often more dangerous than being in darkness.  Creating light usually meant burning fuel for fire which was dangerous and depending on what you were burning (rendered animal fat for instance) smelled awful and created copious amounts of smoke.  The safer and more stable the fuel, the more expensive it got, usually putting anything but the dirtiest and smokiest kind of fuel out the of the reach of all but the wealthiest people.  Not only did keeping light on for any period of time involve the expense of having servants to oversee the safety of the lights but, according to one estimate, before the last century it would have taken the average worker more than five hours to earn enough to buy candles that would produce the same amount of light as a modern 60W bulb that can be bought for a pittance and lit with the flick of a switch. 

Judaism, of course, has a tradition of keeping rituals and ritual objects in the forms they were in more ancient times so that, for instance, we continue to read Torah from scrolls as we did in ancient days.  And so it could be argued we continue to do the same for Chanukah light, lighting them as we would in ancient days to connect us to those days in a way that, arguably, electric light does not.  Kalman argues that the reason may be that the purpose of the light was not in fact the light itself but sacrifice, recalling the sacrifices in the ancient Temple that was rededicated at the end of the Chanukah story.  The light of Chanukah was, he suggests, “not about lighting up the darkness” but “about recreating the oil sacrifices in miniature, right there for all to see.”  

This reminds us that when it comes to creating moral and spiritual light there are no modern technologies that make that easier or more convenient.  Spreading moral light and shining spiritual light in the world is not always easy.  The light we can shine against the darkness of the world may be meager and takes effort and sacrifice, as it has for all human history.  As we enjoy the beauty of the many lights shining around us in this season, lighting our Chanukah candles reminds us that is still our duty to create and maintain moral and spiritual light, however hard it may be and however small the flame.  It is, as it has always been, our duty, our honor and joy.

                        Happy Chanukah!
                        Rabbi Ilan Emanuel