Chanukah Speaks to the Jewish Soul
I’m sure you’ve heard Chanukah referred to as a minor holiday—that the reason it’s become so popular is because of its proximity to Christmas…and that in our desire to match the glitter of Christmas with a holiday of our own, we’ve over-stated the importance and the observance of Chanukah. We exchange gifts like Christians do. We send Chanukah cards like Christians send Christmas cards.
And we have lavish Chanukah parties—well, we used to pre-Covid—to match our neighbors’ Christmas parties. Chanukah is no big deal. We’ve made it a big deal just because of Christmas. WRONG! It’s a mistake to conclude that Chanukah is just a minor holiday. Maimonides wrote that lighting the Chanukah menorah is an “extremely beloved mitzvah…even if a person has nothing to eat…he should sell some of his clothing, if necessary,” to observe it.
Chanukah speaks to the Jewish soul in a way that no other holiday does. All the surveys of the American Jewish community tell us that lighting the Chanukah menorah is the one ritual more Jews do every year than any other. What is it about Chanukah that draws in every Jewish soul? It’s not the gifts nor the cards nor the parties—not even the latkes. It’s the light!
Jews don’t celebrate the miracle of the military victory of the Maccabees over the mightier Syrian Greeks that terrorized them. No, they celebrate the miracle of light they brought into G-d’s house by lighting the menorah right away and not waiting till sufficient pure oil could be found. We celebrate the miracle of that Godly light from so little oil lasting eight days.
Kabbalah teaches that the lighting of the Chanukah lights is a re-enactment of the first moment of creation, when G-d said, “Let there be light.” Even though we may not understand it in our heads, we get it in our kishkas (our guts) that it is this light, representing the light of G-d, that draws us all to Chanukah.
Let me share a story that demonstrates the strong pull of the Chanukah lights on the Jewish soul. It’s about a 12-year-old boy in Auschwitz whose bar mitzvah was supposed to be during Chanukah:
Since it was impossible to be called to the Torah for his bar mitzvah, he decided to commemorate it by fulfilling the mitzvah of the Chanukah lights instead. So, a few weeks before Chanukah, he began to save potato peels and crumbs and fashion them into makeshift candles.
When Chanukah arrived, he lit his little candles with great pride, but also with great fear. As fate would have it, during one night of Chanukah, however, there was a surprise inspection. Before he knew it, a German officer ordered him to explain the candles. Defiantly, he announced that it was the Festival of Lights. The officer ordered him to put out the lights. Then, in a quiet voice, with a courage he didn’t know he had, looked up and said, “Sir, Jews don’t extinguish light, we bring light into the world.” And for some unfathomable reason, the officer —instead of shooting the boy right then and there—turned around and walked away.
How could this young boy defy the German military machine? And with what? Potato peels and crumbs? From where did he get that Maccabean courage? He probably couldn’t explain it, but I’m sure he felt deep within him that when one is with the light, when one is with G-d, one can weather any storm. As that bar mitzvah boy of Auschwitz said to the German officer, “Jews don’t extinguish light, we bring light into the world!”
Yes, there’s light hidden in everything. King Solomon taught (Proverbs 20:27): “Neyr Hashem nismat adam” (G-d’s candle, G-d’s light, is the soul of a person). Being G-d’s candles, helping to bring out the light hidden in the world is our job as Jews. A Parisian artist once complained to the renowned sculptor Jacques Lipchitz that he was unhappy with the quality of the light he was painting. He had even gone to Morocco in search of a better light, but to no avail. “An artist’s light,” Lipchitz told him, “comes not from without, but from within.”
And so, my friends, it is for us. When we gaze at the lights of the menorah this Chanukah, may it help draw out that unique light hidden within us all to remember, “Jews don’t extinguish light, we bring light into the world!”
Rabbi Mark Kunis is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim and author of “Dancing With God: How to Connect With God Every Time You Pray.”