Tuesday, December 15, 2009

5th candle: Raise it up!

The 8 blogs of Chanukah. Each night a new blog from the community of Congregation B'nai Israel.

Tonight, the fourth blog of Chanukah is brought to you by Rabbi David Nelson.  Rabbi Nelson will be our scholar-in-residence, March 19-20, 2009.  He is Rabbi and Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Bard College. He is a Fellow at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and was the Associate Director of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He is the author of Judaism, Physics and God: Searching for Sacred Metaphors in a Post-Einstein World, published by Jewish Lights.

You probably know that each night we light a Hannukah menorah (also called a Hannukiyah in Hebrew), we light one candle the first night, two the second night, three the third night, and so on. But you probably don't know the origin of this practice. In the early days of the period of the Talmud (that is, the first few centuries of the Common Era), there was a dispute between two groups of rabbis, one called Beit Hillel and the other called Beit Shammai. Beit Shammai held that the proper procedure was to light eight lights the first night, and to decrease by one light on each successive night of the holiday, while Beit Hillel claimed that we should start with one light on the first night and increase by one each night until all eight are burning on the last night. As we know, Beit Hillel won the argument, and theirs is the procedure that we follow. But the question is "why?" 

Beit Shammai based their ruling on a similarity that they saw between Hannukah and the festival of Sukkot (Booths - the harvest festival that we celebrated earlier in the fall). The law required that 70 animals be sacrificed in the Temple during Sukkot, starting with 13 on the first day and decreasing by one each day (so 12 on the second day, 11 on the third, and so on). Beit Hillel based their view on a general Jewish principle that we may increase in holiness, but we may not decrease.  

This general principle, which we see in clear, visual terms as the nights of Hannukah progress, strikes me as a wise rule for life in general. Each of us holds dear something that we consider "sacred."  It may not be something "religious" in the traditional sense. It could be the love we feel for those close to us, or the passion we have for learning, or the commitment we have to improve the state of our world. The principle articulated by Beit Hillel directs us always to increase the amount of that holiness in our lives.

Whatever it is that we care most about, we should always try to do more of it in the future than we have done in the past.

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