“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” — Isaiah 49:6
Today is the sixth day of Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, a celebration of two miracles: the victory of the Jews over the Greeks and the single flask of oil that kept the Temple menorah burning for eight days.
An old proverb says, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
Once the Jewish sages decided to establish Hanukkah as a holiday for all generations, there was a dispute about how exactly to carry out the ritual of lighting the Hanukkah menorah. Just to recap, we are celebrating the fact that when the Jewish people recaptured the Temple from the Greeks some 2,000 years ago, they could only find one small jar of pure olive oil in order to light the Temple menorah, the lampstand. Miraculously, that oil, which should have lasted only one day and night, lasted for eight nights. Today, we recall the miracle by lighting our menorahs for eight nights.
The way we light the candles is what the sages disputed. One sage, Hillel, determined that on every night, another candle should be added and lit. Thus, on the first night, only one candle would be lit, and by the eighth night, eight candles would be burning. Another sage, Shammai, recommended the opposite. He believed that on the first night, we should light all eight candles and then subtract one candle each night until we are left with only one candle on the eighth night.
This dispute was about much more than eight candles and the order in which they would be lit. Underlying each argument was a belief system and a suggestion for perfecting God’s world.
According to Shammai, the sage who advocated subtracting a candle each night, the way to make the world a better place was to destroy evil. The candles’ fire is a symbol of destruction. Shammai believed that we need to burn away the evil in the world. At first, we need a lot of fire. But as we eradicate more evil, less fire is needed, until no fire is needed at all.
Hillel, on the other hand, felt that the way to fight darkness was by adding more light. Hillel believed that the complete destruction of evil was an unrealistic and costly venture. Instead, we add more goodness and more godliness into the world until evil has no place in it. This is why we light one candle on the first night — a little light — and we add more and more light until on the eighth night, the whole room shines.
Ultimately, we have followed the opinion of Hillel. We light our candles by adding another candle each night. However, we need to follow Hillel’s advice all year long as well. As God commanded, we need to be a light and add light to the world. Extend warmth and compassion; shine with kindness and love. In this way, we can banish all the darkness and create a world of light.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President