The candles. The oil. The darkness. The Light. For the Jewish people, the symbols of Chanukah remind us that when times seem the bleakest, there is always an escape.
To celebrate Chanukah is to recognize the metaphysical potential of miracles, the forces beyond the rational mind and the special times in history when the weak triumph over the powerful.
But, as we also know, the modern celebration of Chanukah in a modern context also means the submission to commercialism and easy gratification. No longer is the triumph of the Maccabees about the recognition to determinative religious expression. Rather, Chanukah has become part of the simplified vernacular of the “Happy Holidays” mantra: days where the material world takes precedence over the spiritual world.
It is time to reclaim the ethical reality of Chanukah for these challenging times. For too long, moral philosophy has been consumed about dilemmas that mysteriously land on our doorstep. It is time to come off the doorstep, to stop philosophizing over abstract cases, and to go chase moral opportunities. In a climate that seems to favor passive sympathy, what we need more than ever is proactive empathy.
In his commentary on Leviticus 25:35, Rashi writes: “You will strengthen him: Do not wait until he has gone down and fallen, because it will be difficult to raise him up. Instead, strengthen him at the time where his hand is slipping. What is this like? To a load upon a donkey. When it is still on the donkey, one can support it and make it stand. Once it falls to the ground, even five cannot make it stand.”
What do Rashi’s words mean for us in a practical sense? What do we do to move the enterprise of moral justice forward? What if instead of waiting for the possibility of a call from a suicidal friend/colleague/family member, we go above and beyond to support those struggling with mental illness? What if instead of waiting for a fundraiser to call us with a pitch, we chase after the causes that we know we need to support? What if instead of waiting for someone to crawl begging to us, we proactively reach out to prevent them from falling? What if instead of waiting for an estranged friend to apologize, we reach out to reconcile?
To be a Jew in this world is to be responsible. To be a person of conscience means to find comfort in the uncomfortable. To be responsible means to strategize about the moral arc of life and pursue moral opportunities. A spiritual-child waits to be called while a spiritual-adult stands up and goes forth. Instead of waiting for others to beg us for help, we should be first in line to give back.
That is precisely what we witness in the first verse of our Torah portion this week. “Jacob sends angels ahead of him,” (Genesis 32:4). He doesn’t wait for his brother Esau to arrive. He proactively reaches out. He proactively creates a plan for this intense family encounter. He thinks ahead morally and prepares himself spiritually.
For me, this sentiment is what Chanukah is about. While the presents, food and the symbols are great to celebrate with family, the essence of what the holiday means goes beyond the mundane. The spiritual dimension is what we should strive for.
We don’t passively attend synagogue to listen to sermons and songs. We don’t only show up to classes and listen to others speak. But, during Chanukah, we bring the light from our homes and spread it so that it becomes a greater light into the world. On an even deeper level, we are invited to become the light; our souls are the wick and the world is the flame.
We are invited to become personified chanukiot that share our light with the rest of the world. We don’t wait for others to request light in a dark world. We go out — proactively and purposefully — and share our light for all around us to be illuminated. JN
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the author of 19 books on Jewish ethics.