By Rabbi Levi Greenberg
Chanukah is known as the Festival of Lights since the essential observance of the holiday is lighting the menorah (Hebrew for candelabra) for eight nights. Over 2,000 years ago the ancient Syrian Greek empire conquered the land of Israel and commenced a tyrannical campaign of persecution against the Jews.
After several years of unbearable religious persecution, a small group of devout Jews – commonly known as the Maccabees — revolted and miraculously decimated the occupying forces. When they prepared to rededicate the Holy Temple service of lighting the seven branched menorah, they found only one night’s supply of ritually pure olive oil and replenishing the supply would take eight days. They lit the menorah and the seven flames miraculously burned for eight days and nights, hence the annual commemoration of this miracle through lighting candles for eight nights.
There were many candelabras in the temple providing ample light for the massive compound, but the Chanukah miracle happened with a special candelabra, placed in close proximity to the temple’s holiest chamber. Every day the priests filled its lamps with ritually pure olive oil and kindled seven flames. It was not needed for light, since no one spent time in that chamber and the flames were lit only for the ritual.
As the epicenter of Judaism, every detail of the temple service represented another essential of daily life, including nutrition, hydration and wisdom. Why was there a ritual representing light, if humans can survive without it?
Hugo Gryn was a teenager when the Nazis invaded his Ukrainian hometown, rounded up the Jews and deported them to Auschwitz. On the first night of Chanukah, as Hugo shivered in the barracks, he saw his father pull out a small tin cup with a small lick of butter at the bottom of it. He pulled a thread from his camp uniform, inserted it into the butter and proceeded to light it while reciting the Chanukah blessings under his breath.
Hugo was outraged. Not because his father was endangering his life by lighting the Chanukah candles, an offense for which he could be shot on the spot. He found it simply impractical and asked his father how he could possibly waste a lick of butter that could provide much needed nutrition for their bodies, by lighting it for Chanukah for just a few minutes.
His father looked him in the eye and said. “Hugo, if Auschwitz taught us anything, it is that a person can live for days without food but he cannot live for one moment without light.”
Light has the unique quality of being beneficial to one and all. If one person is holding a lit candle, everyone in close proximity benefits as well. In Auschwitz they learned to live without food, but the ability to care for and benefit others is an essential human need that even the harshest conditions should never diminish.
Light represents the essential human need to live a life of higher purpose. To push beyond the comfort zone and seek to make the world a better place. To never be satisfied with yesterday’s accomplishments and strive for greater heights every single day.
That’s why kindling flames was a daily ritual in the temple and why the Maccabees experienced a tremendous miracle associated with light. Because they heroically battled for the soul of the nation and their victory represented the unquestioned superiority of goodness over evil.
Instead of simply commemorating distant history, the Chanukah lights are meant to inspire us here and now to the unique ability and essential need of every individual to transform the dark and increasingly chaotic world around us into a place of brilliant serenity. As Maimonides famously declared, even one single good deed, spoken word or thought can tip the scales and usher in an era of global peace and tranquility.
To learn more about Chanukah please visit chabadelpaso.com/chanukah.
Chanukah this year begins on Sunday, Nov. 28, and continues through Sunday, Dec. 6.
Chabad Lubavitch will host an outdoor menorah lighting on Sunday, Nov. 28 at 4:30 p.m. in honor of the first night of Chanukah. State Rep. Art Fierro will light the center candle. The lighting will be followed by dinner and a children’s program.
The eighth night of Chanukah will be celebrated with the 21st annual Chanukah Playland on Sunday, Dec. 5 at 2:30 p.m., followed by the outdoor menorah lighting at 5 p.m. Visit chabadelpaso.com/playland for more details. Both programs will be held at the Chabad Lubavitch Center for Jewish Life, 6516 Escondido Drive.
Levi Greenberg is associate rabbi at Chabad Lubavitch in El Paso.
Cover photo: State Rep. César Blanco, right, joined Rabbi Yisrael Greenberg in lighting a giant menorah outside Chabad Lubavitch synagogue in West El Paso in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Chabad Lubavitch)