There is a famous dispute in the Talmud between two great sages of our people, Shammai and Hillel, about the lighting of the Hanukkah candles. Frankly, they were always about espousing conflicting views on matters of Jewish law. But just as famously, they had enormous respect for one another, and their arguments were for the most sacred of purposes.
Beit Shammai believed that we should begin with eight candles on the first night of Hanukkah and reduce the number on each subsequent night until only one is left on the last night. In many ways, this most accurately mirrors the miracle of the cruse of oil itself. The oil was meant to only last one night, but nonetheless it lasted eight, giving enough time to procure new, pure oil to keep the Temple menorah eternally lit.
Beit Hillel, on the other hand, felt that the essence of the miracle increased each day. The oil should have only lasted one night, but lo and behold, it lasted until the next night, and the next, and so on, until it had lasted a miraculous eight nights. Our awe and joy only grew with each passing day, and so it should shine brightest on the final night of celebration. Therefore, he said, we should increase the number of candles each night. Inherent in this line of thought is that in our efforts to pursue holiness and righteousness, we should bring more light into the world, not less. And it is in this spirit that our Temple was rededicated.
Our tradition follows that of Hillel, but there is merit in understanding Shammai’s point of view. And, it is important to note, they both agreed on the purpose of lighting the chanukiah in commemoration of Hanukkah: it is to rekindle in ourselves the light of our spiritual and physical triumph over darkness.
As usual, it is not difficult to see the relevance of this message to our work today. It takes a single spark to dispel darkness, but to sustain that light takes all of our people, working together with a shared purpose.
The work of our Federations and communities is the ner tamid—the eternal light—in the sacred task of helping the most vulnerable among us: to feed the hungry and lift up the downtrodden, to build and sustain strong communities where these values are our guiding light, to increase the joy and love of our tradition, and to make every person count. We are family— mishpacha—caring for each other here, in Israel and across the world. It takes an act of kindness to dispel despair.
This Hanukkah, as we wish you and your loved ones all the joy and wonder that the holiday brings, we also say thank you for your dedication—and rededication—to increasing light in the world. May your light continue to shine brighter with each passing day, and together, may we continue to be a light unto the nations.
Shabbat shalom and Chanukah sameach.
Mark Wilf is Chair of the Board of Trustees and Eric D. Fingerhut is President & CEO of JFNA.