Shining from Inside to Outside to Inside: Lessons on Jewish Education

Rabba Yaffa Epstein, Director of Education, N.A., Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies

Hanukkah is one of the most beloved holidays in the Jewish calendar. It is easy to see why. Deep in the cold and dark of winter, we are charged to kindle the Hanukiah for eight nights, each night lighting a new additional candle, which symbolizes our bringing more light, warmth, truth, and justice to the world.

We usually translate the word Hanukkah as dedication, and we connect it with the rededication of the Temple. If we look closer we see that it comes from the Hebrew root ח.נ.כ. —H.N.Ch. —the very same root as the Hebrew word for hinuch, education. How are Hanukkah, a holiday about rededication, and education connected?

The Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 21b, teaches us that the essential obligation of Hanukkah is to have a light kindled each day by a person and their household. Ner ish u’beito: Every home must have a Hanukkah light kindled each night. In the traditional understanding, Hanukkah commemorates both the rededication of the Temple, as well as the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days, which afforded us the opportunity to light the Menorah in the Temple. In many ways, it would have made more sense for us to light the Hanukkah lights in the synagogue, which is often referred to as a mikdash me’at, a mini-temple. Yet, the rabbis insist that this ritual be done in the home. There is a deep sense of democratization and empowerment in their obligation to make this a home ritual. The lighting of the Hanukkah lights is not something external and passive that we witness. It is instead performed in and by each and every Jewish household.

Interestingly, there is an additional aspect of the Hannukah lights that the Rabbis require. When we light the Hanukiot, the lights must face outward, toward the window. We share the light with the world. The Rabbis suggested that when one has limited resources and must choose between which rituals to perform, the ritual of lighting the Hanukkah lamp takes precedence over other rituals, due to pirsumei nisa, publicizing the miracle. There is a charge to the Jewish community not only to light in their own homes and to deeply internalize the light and the miracle of Hanukkah but actually to ensure that that light is shined outwardly as well. We light in a time and place when passersby will see and experience the light, and be reminded of the miracle of Hanukkah.

The Rabbis here teach us that Hanukkah holds within it the power and potential for self-awareness and self-understanding. We light at home. But that self- realization  is not only internal. We shine our light outside into the streets and bring others into the experience as well. We connect the private and the public.

In The Heart of a Teacher: Identity and Integrity in Teaching, renowned educational scholar Parker Palmer describes how in order to be a good teacher, one must know themselves and understand their own voice.

He writes, “As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together. The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or less than the convolutions of my inner life. Viewed from this angle, teaching holds a mirror to the soul. If I am willing to look in that mirror, and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge—and knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject.”

This is the first lesson of the Hanukkah candles: We must deeply know and understand our own voices, our own households, our own souls in order to be able to effectively reach our students and constituents.

Palmer continues:  “Unlike many professions, teaching is always done at the dangerous intersection of personal and public life… But a good teacher must stand where personal and public meet, dealing with the thundering flow of traffic at an intersection where ‘weaving a web of connectedness’ feels more like crossing a freeway on foot.”

The Hanukkah candles also teach us that we must be willing to shine our own lights out into the public sphere, to share our knowledge and content but to also bravely share ourselves with our students and constituents.

Finally, the third obligation: The Talmud also teaches us that not only must we shine our light out into the street and that passersby must have the opportunity to see it, and that someone who simply sees a Hanukkah light—without lighting it themselves—has the capacity to make the blessing of “Who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors.” What a remarkable idea! That my personal action, my act of lighting, and then publicizing that lighting, sharing my light with the world, actually affords someone else not only the opportunity to partake of that light but actually to have the ability to sanctify and elevate that light for themselves.

In other words, I do a private internal action, and I share that action with those around me, outside of myself, and then they too have the capacity to take that experience and deeply internalize it within themselves.

We are charged lilmod ulelamed—to learn and to teach. I learn Torah, I gain more knowledge, and when I do so, I share it with the world around me, and then my students, my community members, they have the capacity to learn and make that Torah their own.

Once again, Parker Palmer states this explicitly regarding education:  “Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves.”

We learn from the Hanukkah candles that when we shine our own lights out into the public sphere, we allow our students to do the same. We allow them to internalize the knowledge we share and to sanctify it, making it their own.

It is not just that we, as educators and engagers, have the light and have the knowledge and the Torah to share. In fact, those on the outside also have a vital and critical role. Without them, we would not be able to fully experience the miracle for we would have no one to share our light with. The outside see-er is as critically important as the inside light-er.

These “outsiders” are partners in our pirsumei nisa, our publicizing of the miracle, for without someone else to see, for without someone to enjoy our light, we have not fully experienced the message of Hanukkah. Those outside of our homes have their own Torah, their own seeing, that can strengthen and deepen our light as well. 

Hanukkah asks of each one of us to be true educators. We must connect to ourselves, share our light with one another, kindle the light of Judaism and knowledge within each other, and recognize that we have as much to learn from the see-ers as from the light-ers.