HANUKA: Of Jews and Candles


In less than a week we will celebrate the holiday of Hanuka. And whenever this festival approaches, I remember one important question: what does it mean to be a Jew? There are many answers to this question. Technical, spiritual, and political answers. The answer I want to share with you today is beyond these definitions. Let’s see what do you think.

Each Jewish person is a candle. Judaism, the Tora, is the flame of that candle. This metaphor is not arbitrary or capricious. The Tora was always compared to “light.” The Hebrew word TORA comes from the word OR meaning “light.” Our mission as a Nation is to transform ourselves, as the prophet Yesha’ayahu said (42: 6) in “or lagoyim”, the light for the rest of the world. And we fulfill this mission without acts of proselytism. To illuminate we only need to be lit. The word TORA comes from the same root and is almost identical to the word MORÁ, teacher. We Jews consider that the learning process is a process of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment. The Tora is “our teacher”, it teaches us, it educates us, it enlightens us. And through his teachings it dispels darkness from our lives. It shows us how to live and gives us clarity.

Now that we understand why the Tora can be compared to a light or a flame, let’s go back to the candles, the receptacle of the flame: the Jewish individual. If a YEHUDI does not learn Tora, does not study it, does not observe it, does not allow the the Tora to illuminate his or her life, is he still Jewish? The answer is an unequivocal “yes”. A Jew never loses his Jewish status (ישראל אע”פ שחטא ישראל הוא) A Jew without Judaism could be compared to a flameless candle, and a flameless candle is still a candle …. Of course it is an unlit candle. A candle that is not serving yet the purpose for which it was conceived. But in spite of everything, it remains a candle, and as such, it can always be “lit.” And maybe all this candle needs is another candle, already lit and with a very firm flame, that will approach and offer affectionately to share its flame and help it to light.

I think the metaphor of candle and the flame is very appropriate for Hanuka. It helps us clarify, among other things, why we celebrate a great military victory by lighting candles … Let’s see. Sometimes, our enemies wanted to destroy the candles. That is, they sought our extermination. They did not care if the candles were on or off. If in the SHOA a Jew said: “I don’t believe in God. I’m not observant. Let me go,” the Nazis would have taken him anyways to the concentration camp. In the SHOA, as in the days of Haman and Ahashverosh, the anti-Semitic enemy did not care about the flame. The enemy wanted to destroy the candles. His hatred was ethnic, but also practical, because after all, by destroying the candles he would also extinguish the flames …

In Hanuka, as in the times of the Inquisition, the enemy’s goal was not to destroy the candles. His mission was to extinguish the flames. And replace the flames by a cross or by a Greek deity. The Hashmonayim, our heroic ancestors who defeated the enemy on Hanuka, did not fight to save their lives. Their physical lives were not in danger. They fought, and actually were willing to “sacrifice” their lives in order to preserve the flames of Judaism. Nothing more appropriate than lighting candles to celebrate the victory of Hanuka.
Something else. The miracle of Hanuka, the oil that lasted seven times longer than it should have lasted, has much to teach us. When we follow the example of the Hashmonayim to strengthen and MULTIPLY our flame, the Tora, with other Jews, we can be sure that HaShem is on our side. And when we might think that our forces, efforts or talents would be enough only to light one candle, HaShem will give us the inspiration and the strength to light many more.