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Hanukkah – The Progressive Candles: A Commentary on Jewish Life, by Rabbi Norman Lamm

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’sThe Megillah: Majesty & Mystery’

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the most important feature of Hanukkah — the Hanukkah candles — is the increase in the number of candles from day to day. The lighting of the candles is progressive; that is, we proceed from least to most. The first night we light one candle, the second night two candles, the third night three candles, and so until the eighth night, when the candelabrum is ablaze with all eight candles. What we have is growth and increase and progress. It was the House of Hillel which gave this order its legal form when it said that mosif ve-holekh, the number of candles is to be increased each night, because ma’alin be-kodesh, because one must rise, increase, or progress in holiness.

In a sense, this idea of increase, of addition, of the progressive candles, is a very deep and incisive commentary on Jewish life and what it should be. The Hanukkah candles represent more than merely the military victory of the Jewish Maccabeans over the Greek Antiochus. They symbolize as well the clash of cultures, the war of world-views. There was the Greek world, steeped in its oriental idolatry, pitted against a Jewish minority stubbornly proud of its pure belief in one God.

One should not dismiss the Greek world lightly. The world’s greatest philosophers were nursed in the cradle of Greek culture. But the great difference between Hellenism, as the Greek culture is known, and Judaism, lies in this: The Greek world glorified contemplation, the Jewish world glorified behavior, mitzvot. The Greeks stressed creed, while we insisted upon deed. The Greeks were inclined to inactivity — the perfection of form, while the Jew insisted upon activity. The Greeks had many philosophers but few saints; many thinkers but few doers. With the Jews this was reversed. Our world was not one of cold thought, but one of warm action. And this Jewish attitude is best represented by the progressive candles — increase, growth, action, progress. I have no doubt that if the Greeks had won the war, and decided to celebrate it by the lighting of candles, they would have constructed one gigantic, beautiful candle in front of the statue of Zeus, or a thousand smaller ones all around him — but it would have remained that way. With us Jews, however, Hanukkah is celebrated by progressive candles. Ma’alin be-kodesh.

In human terms, we could call the Greeks sitters or standers; that is, in their cold inactivity they confined themselves, insofar as ethics and good deeds are concerned, to one place and there stagnated. They were sitters or standers who rarely chose to help a fellow man. And if the Greeks were sitters and standers, we Jews were walkers and goers. And when one of us decided to “sit it out,” and not participate actively in the good life, then our Rabbis were merciless in their criticism.

The Torah tells us, “Va-yeshev Ya’akov ba-aretz megurei aviv,” which is usually translated as, “and Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s residence,” but which literally means, “and Jacob sat in the land of his father’s residence” (Genesis 37:1). Even Jacob — who was all his life a great and dynamic “doer” and “goer” — was at times a “sitter.” And listen to the Rabbis’ biting remark: “Wherever man sits, Satan jumps; wherever man becomes inactive, Satan raises his ugly head and becomes active” (Bereishit Rabbah, Va-Yeshev 84). Here was Jacob, an old man who was tired and weary of a life of wandering and running away. He felt that his energies were spent in wrestling with angels, in warding off Laban, and in protecting himself from Esau. He now had twelve children and he was ready to retire. “Enough done in one lifetime,” he thought. “Now is the time to get a little nahat, the time to sit back and relax.”

And so Jacob sat back and relaxed where his father had once lived. And what happens? Satan becomes active. Once a Jacob sits, jealousy invades his home, and his sons begin a struggle with each other over a mere colored shirt. Once a Jacob sits, then one son speaks evil of another. Once a Jacob sits, then he finds that his son Joseph, as the Rabbis relate, spends more time combing his hair in front of a mirror than in poring over his schoolbooks, and he soon begins to dream high-handed dreams of conquest and royalty. Indeed, once a Jacob sits, then his family is torn apart and some sons sell other sons down the river and into slavery.

And sitting, in this sense of inactivity, leads not only to family dissension, but also to downright immorality. Here was Israel, a “holy nation and a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), wandering in the desert, and suddenly “Israel sat in the plains of Moab” (Exodus 22:1). What happens when a nation sits? The children of Israel entered into immoral relationships with the daughters of Moab. So sitting leads to immorality as well. Indeed, once stagnation sets in, once there is only sitting or standing but no going or progress, then Satan jumps and becomes ferociously hyperactive.

What is the Jewish way? Certainly not sitting or standing, but going and walking. In the great vision that Abraham beheld, God’s command was clear and to the point: “Walk before me and be perfect” (Genesis 17:1). When a man walks, not sits, then he has a chance of becoming perfect. When Joshua the high priest stands before Almighty God, and Satan is at his right hand, God promises Joshua the ultimate redemption of Israel and tells him, “If you will walk in my ways, then I will give you places to walk among those that stand” (Zechariah 3:7). Yes, the world is full of sitters and standers, those who in their inactivity and stagnation invite the company of Satan. But the Abrahams and the Joshuas are committed to a policy of walking and going, of constant activity and positive, helpful deeds. For such is the active policy of Jews in all ages, an activation symbolized by the progressive candles of the Hanukkah menorah. Ma’alin be-kodesh.

How unfortunate, therefore, that so many of our modern Jews, while lighting the candles, forget their meaning. How often a rabbi hears the following remarks: “You see, Rabbi, it’s true I am not an Orthodox Jew, I don’t put on tefillin, I don’t observe Shabbat, I don’t observe the dietary laws; but, Rabbi, let me tell you that I have a good heart; it’s all in here.” And this is followed by a thumping of his chest.

Of course, that is precisely what Rabbis are afraid of — that it’s all in here, that the good heart is something which lies buried between the ribs and behind the diaphragm, and whose warm heartbeats cannot be heard without the aid of artificial instruments. The “good heart” is the excuse of the sitter or the stander. The “good heart” excuse is in the tradition of Greece, and not Israel. I am very wary, indeed, when all a person has to offer is a good heart; whose good intentions cannot be reflected in good limbs and good pockets and good deeds. Imagine what would happen if we would translate that “good heart” idea into actual medical terms. If all the blood were to be drained from your body, from the fingertips to the tips of your toes, and concentrated in your heart, it would certainly be a good heart because it would contain all the blood in your body. But such a situation can only lead to death, because a good heart is not enough; we must have a heart which can circulate this goodness all over the body.

Good intentions without good deeds and good actions are characteristic of the Greeks and not of the Jews. I feel sure, for example, that our synagogues were not built by good intentions or good hearts alone, but by good deeds and good actions. The UJA and Yeshiva University were not built by good hearts alone. They required sturdy hands and sharp heads and noble actions.

With this in mind, we can understand part of the special Al ha-Nissim prayer. In the course of that prayer we praise God and thank Him for assuring us of victory over the Greeks, who, we say, wanted to cause us to forget the Torah and to transgress God’s commandments. This statement is, seemingly, not true from a historical point of view. We know that Antiochus promulgated only three harsh laws against the Jews: He forbade the observance of Shabbat, the festival of Rosh Hodesh, and the rite of circumcision. But nowhere do we find that this mad emperor prohibited the study of Torah.

The answer, however, lies in the idea we have been trying to convey; that is, if the Jew is forbidden to observe the practical commandments, the hukkei retzonekha, if the study of the Torah cannot lead to resolute action, then it is the same as if he were prohibited from even thinking about the Torah — and it must lead to forgetting the Torah. Of what use is Torah if it does not lead to concrete action and noble deeds? If Antiochus did not allow the Jews to observe their commandments, then he stands accused in the eyes of history of destroying their study of the Torah. For the Jew, study without implementation is of slight value. Creed must give birth to deed; contemplation must result in behavior; thought must end in action. Ma’alin be-kodesh.

The light of the progressive candles is, therefore, for us, an enlightening commentary on what Jewish life should be. They inspire us to better behavior, challenge us to greater deeds, and urge us on to new and broader horizons, with that ever-valid commandment, “Rise in holiness.”