There is an ancient debate between the houses of Shammai and Hillel regarding how to light the candelabra called a Chanukiah. The House of Shammai extracts from the biblical diminishing of bull sacrifices for the holiday of Sukkot, the concept of decreasing the lights to be symbolic of decreasing evil, corruption and negative forces in the world. When the dark is decreased the light will shine through. Therefore, he ruled we should begin with eight candles and light one less each night. Hillel, on the other hand, believes that the concept of Kedusha, sanctification, asks us to rise above our human nature; to gain a higher level of holiness by reaching to the image of God within to expand light. He ruled that we should begin with a single candle and add one each night until the eight lights are burning.
On the High Holidays, we read a section called the holiness code whereby each sentence calls upon us to act and then sanctifies the action by concluding, "ki kadosh ani Adonai Elohaychem", because I, Adonai your God, am holy. This Torah imperative to be kadosh, holy, is the impetus to reach in, to reach up, to rise above. Thus, Hillel instructs us that increasing light, Divine light, b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God) in the world will overpower negative forces.
Focusing on the destructive force of burning flames and fire, Shammi’s reasoning is a hope that when the flame dwindles what remains will be strong enough to have the desired outcome. Hillel, on the other hand, sees victory as requiring actions which build upon one another to achieve enlightenment. One might say he is seeking a spiritual high.
We know that just as the burning flame can spread light, so too can it spread destruction. Jews have a long history of being thrown into political flames, all the way back to the midrash of Abraham avinu (our father) being thrown into the furnace by Nimrod. Our memories, to name a few, include the enslavement in Egypt despite the marriage between Joseph and Asenath, daughter of the Priest of Egypt, their two children and subsequent descendents. Then there is the first crusades which began 1095 CE at the bidding of Pope Urban II against the Muslim kingdom and of course the subsequent crusades (ending 1290s CE– some like to say the Spanish Armada of 1588 CE but this is not the traditional historian’s perspective), the Pograms (beginning in 1800s), and of course the Holocaust. These destructive flames include the holiday of Chanukah, 167-164 BCE, the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire who attempted to impose Helenism on the Jews.
There is a reason Julius Rosenwald, Lillian Wald, and Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch were founding members of the NAACP and Jacob Schiff, Jacob Billikopf, and Rabbi Stephen Wise sat on their Board. There is a reason the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism as was the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Expanding light is what we are called upon to do. Tikkun Olam (repair of the world) is a central piece of our tradition because we understand that all of humanity is interconnected and regardless of whether or not we seem to be directly effected, eventually, we are affected.
Like other holidays that are celebrated at this time of year, Chanukah is the light in the darkness. The word Chanukah means dedication. This year, Erev Chanukah falls on Christmas Eve. May our communities, as well as those observing other holidays, and those observing no holidays, be dedicated to bring a little light into the darkness that has played out in our country for many months. Which ever way you light your Chanukiah: may we never shy away from diminishing the darkness when we see it or hear it; may we garner the strength to increase light and enlightenment for the better of our world.
Blessings to you and yours for safe and joyous Holiday Season