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

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
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,
ending with one, in a re-enacting of the miracle as we imagine it might have
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

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

Perhaps what Hillel means to teach us is a variation on the idea that “mitzvah
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
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

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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