D'var Torah Sheds Light on Hanukkah

Thank you to Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun of Congregation Torat El for this enlightening and inspiring d'var Torah at Jewish Federation's Annual Meeting & Impact Celebration, December 8, 2022.

Erev Tov, good evening everyone and welcome to Congregation Torat El. 

Though it may be hard to believe, we are about ten days away from the start of Hanukkah. As I stand here tonight it occurs to me that Hanukkah is a useful holiday for considering the importance of the work that we honor tonight,  inspiring us to hold fast to our commitments to the Jewish community moving forward. 

First and foremost, the story of Hanukkah is a story of dedication. Indeed the very word “Hanukkah” means just that- dedication, and is a reminder of that moment in history when the Maccabees re-dedicated the ancient Temple in Jerusalem after it had been desecrated by the Assyrian Greek empire. Many are familiar with the miracle of the oil, which I will come back to in a moment. But tonight, we should also recall the story describing how the Jews cleaned up and re-dedicated the ancient Temple, as told in the Book of Maccabees, where we read that this re-dedication/celebration was a re-do of sorts, for a holiday that they had missed during all of that time away from the Temple. 

The holiday? The festival of Sukkot (8 days by the way). One message here is that sometimes we are unable to accomplish our goals. Sometimes, we are prevented, due to real circumstances, or simply our own priorities, from making a commitment to a particular cause. Sometimes life gets in the way. The story of Hanukkah reminds us that when we are presented with an opportunity to re-commit ourselves to a cause, we should do just that. Tonight, as we gather together to celebrate the broader Jewish community of which we are all a part, I would invite each of us to consider how we might do more to commit ourselves to engaging with, and sustaining, our collective Jewish community. Between Covid over the past couple of years, and life in general, we may not have prioritized our dedication to the greater Jewish community as much as we would have wanted to in recent years. Tonight, let us ask ourselves how we might re-dedicate our time, resources, and spirits to this sacred work. 

But Hanukkah is not only about dedication, it is also about light. This Hag Ha-Urim, Festival of lights, reminds us that each one of us as individuals, and all of us as a collective, are given a choice of how we use that divine spark that that burns brightly within us. And here we come back to the miracle of the oil. In tractate Shabbat of the Talmud, where this story first occurs, we read of the famous debate between Hillel and Shammai about the proper way to light the Hanukkiah. Shammai teaches that we should light all eight candles on the first night, and then take away one candle each night. But Hillel disagrees, teaching that we should start with one candle and increase the number of candles that are lit as the holiday progresses. Ultimately, our tradition sides with Hillel, choosing to have the Hanukkiah symbolize the holiday's message that we always should strive to increase light that we bring into the world around us. 

Maalin b’kodesh v’ein moridin, (Shabbat 21b) we should strive to do more, and not less. As we gather tonight to celebrate the important work of the Federation, each one of us should be asking ourselves what we can do to add more light to our community; to be more like the shamash, the helper candle, working to bring light to others in our local community, in Israel, and throughout the world. 

Bringing forth this light is not always so easy, but is it always possible. A great Hasidic teacher, the Sefat Emet, once taught that each one of us has a hidden light deep within, an or ha-ganuz. It is mitzvot, our Torah centered actions and obligations that help us bring this hidden light out into the open. It is mitzvot, such as, but certainly not limited 
to, supporting the work of the Federation, that help bring each of our sacred lights out into the public sphere (also a theme of Hanukkah). 

As we gather here tonight, may each one of us re-dedicate ourselves to a shared sense of sacred purpose, always remembering that while the light of an individual is incredibly powerful, the light of the collective is exponential.


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