For many years I have delighted in teaching about the debates between Hillel and Shammai, two of the Rabbinic sages from two thousand years ago. These debates are such a great model of Jewish discussion and study. First we see that Hillel, kinder and gentler, offers the template for our rituals and how to approach Jewish life. At the same time, while the gruff and short-tempered Shammai, might have his G-d approved opinion cast aside, we still talk about it and include Shammai in the discussion. We follow the instructions of Hillel, but we still remember and honor Shammai. We might not follow a minority opinion but we don’t erase it either.
As Hanukah approaches, I once again look at the Hillel-Shammai debate over the lighting of the Hanukah Menorah. Shammai said “start with 8 lights and decrease by one each night”. Hillel responded and declared that “we want to increase the light, so start with one and add through the holiday”. In this cold (relatively speaking) and dark time of the year, I have always loved the idea of increasing the light as Hillel directs us. By the time the full Hanukah menorah is burning, we have passed the new moon, close to the winter solstice.
While the weather has not turned, the days are getting shorter and we are in our countdown to Hanukah. As I write this, we have just passed Rosh Chodesh of the month of Kislev. The moon will start to go from new to full. Once we see the full moon, only 10 days are left until Hanukah. With this countdown, we start going through our cycle of preparation, thinking about the food, celebrations, gifts of kindness and light that we can share.
Yet, as I think about how I am physically and spiritually preparing for Hanukah, I realize I have something a little backwards. In the Rabbinic literature, the Hasmoneans (the political wing of the Maccabean warriors) go and rededicate the Temple of Jerusalem and create this observance. The miracle of the eight nights actually represents a beginning, not an end! As the story goes, they had enough olive oil to light the lamp of the eternal flame for only one day. G-d offers a miracle and the oil lasts for eight days until the next shipment of olive oil (being processed in this season) arrives at the Temple. This is where I offer some new perspective in this season. We would often see this as the end of the story. Eight nights, end of Hanukah. Eight lights are burning, latkes eaten, gifts shared, dreidels spun. Yay, that was fun.
I would like to give us the opportunity to step back and look at it from the other end. Maybe we create a space for the perspective of Shammai. With Hillel we build up and then culminate our celebration. If we look at the history, the work of the Hasmoneans is actually just beginning. G-d gets them started; keeping the light burning. Once the new oil arrives however, the work is in human hands. The caretakers of the Temple of Jerusalem have to continue to light and keep the eternal flame kindled! Think about what Shammai offered. The light starts out big and hangs on until the end. If we follow this line of thinking, from the end of Hanukah forward, we have to take responsibility for creating the light and warmth that gets us through winter and back into the spring. The eight nights of Hanukah should not be just an end, but a beginning. We start off with something new and different, we get help and support, and then we have to take on this beginning in order to keep sustaining the effort
As we celebrate in this season, I hope we take both Hillel and Shammai to heart. There is much darkness in our world, some in the natural world and what seems like an overabundance in our human world. In kindling the Hanukah lights, with Hillel’s direction, I hope we see that one spark of goodness and kindness can make a difference. When we work together, our power becomes something more than the sum of our parts. We also need to claim the energy of Shammai’s direction. We have to make this the beginning of something. We can break habits, we can start new disciplines, we can start act by act, mitzvah by mitzvah, kindness by kindness to change the world. The joy of this season can be our catalyst and inspiration. It is up to us to find ways on our own, and working as a community to keep that light burning always.
Rabbi Michael Birnholz