Hanukkah: Ascending to Greatness

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Hanukkah

Happy Hanukkah, the “Holiday of Lights!”

Here’s a question: have you ever wondered about the whole eight-nights, one-flask of oil story, and whether it really explains how and why we light the Hanukkiah (Hanukkah lamp) the way we do?

Think about it: imagine that indeed, one flask of oil lasted eight nights. You’d start out with a bright flame, and then the flame would slowly flicker out and become smaller and smaller as the remaining oil was stretched out to fit the eight-day dedication of the Temple.

If we were lighting eight lights to commemorate the miracle of the oil, should we not then start out with eight candles and trickle down to one, to remember how the oil lasted before it ran out?

If you think that’s a good question- well, I can’t take credit for it. In the Talmud, the sage Shammai proposed lighting the Hanukkiah just that way: starting out with eight, and ending with one, in a re-enacting of the miracle as we imagine it might have happened. However, the sage Hillel ruled that we light starting with one, and going to eight, and we follow his more joyful, less literalist interpretation of remembering the miracle.

One reason that we follow Hillel is the principle of “ma’alin b’kodesh”- we ascend in
spiritual levels. For example- we may turn an ordinary building into a synagogue, but we should not, if at all possible, turn a synagogue into an ordinary building (a shop or apartments, perhaps.) Thus, if lighting Hanukkah lights is a holy act, lighting two is a greater act than lighting one, and lighting three is a greater act than lighting two.

Perhaps what Hillel means to teach us is a variation on the idea that “mitzvah goreret mitzvah“- a mitzvah leads to a mitzvah, which is often understood to mean that
once we turn our souls towards the doing of holy deeds, we strengthen and orient ourselves towards spiritual goals, and in a wonderful “positive feedback loop,” spiritual deeds lead to spiritual growth which leads to the desire to do more spiritual deeds . . . . and so on. The spiral can also start with study: study leads to action which leads to the
desire for greater understanding, which leads to study, which leads to inspiration, which leads to action!

In the days of the Maccabees, Judaism was at a low point, to say the least. Hillel wants to remind us: if your spirituality is a low point- start somewhere small, but start. Light one candle, and you’ll be inspired to light two. Light two, and it will lead to three. This applies to prayer, to tzedakah, to acts of lovingkindness, to anything that strengthens and grows our souls. Start small, and great things will follow. We ascend in holiness, and with God’s love flowing from within us, keep growing.

A happy holiday of lights to all,


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