By Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel
When I was growing up, Hanukkah was literally a “festival of many lights!” As the oldest of six children, my parents gave each one of us our own chanukiyah. (Note: A menorah is any multibranched candelabra. A chanukiyah is a menorah specifically designated for Hanukkah. It has nine candle holders: one for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, plus one for the “shammash” — the helper candle that is used to light the other candles.)
Every morning during Hanukkah, each of us would carefully choose which color candles we were going to light that night. My mother placed a table in front of one of our living room windows with all of the chanukiyot (plural form of chanukiyah) circled strategically around. The mitzvah — the commandment — of Hanukkah is to publicize the miracle. Hence the directive to light the candles in a window. My siblings and I loved watching all those candles burn and glow!
I have a collection of many beautiful and unique chanukiyot now. But the one I still use every year on Hanukkah is the one I used growing up, the one I inherited from my mother. It is not beautiful, but it takes me back to my childhood, it reminds me of my mother and helps make me feel as if she is part of my Hanukkah celebration, even though she is no longer alive. That feeling helps the flame of my candles glow even more brightly.
It is no accident that Hanukkah, our festival of lights, occurs during December. These are some of the darkest days/nights of the year: We are approaching the winter solstice. Once again, Hanukkah reminds us that during the darkest time of the year, we human beings have the power to kindle lights against the darkness. We have the power to brighten the lives of others.
For those who celebrate Hanukkah, let me suggest that we can make the flames of our own Hanukkah candles burn even more brightly by dedicating at least one of the nights of our own Hanukkah celebration to a family tzedakah (social justice/charity) project instead of giving gifts to each other. The word tzedakah comes from the root tzedek — which means “justice” and “righteousness.” We don’t simply give tzedakah because it makes us feel good, but rather out of our sense of responsibility to God and to taking care of others in the world around us.
There are a number of different provisions for tzedakah outlined in the Jewish tradition. They all center around one basic principle: No matter what form our tzedakah takes, we must make sure that we never compromise anyone’s dignity, honor or self-respect. In fact, the highest form of tzedakah is when we can help someone to help themselves, so that they will no longer be dependent upon the help of others.
This year, may the light of the Hanukkah candles ignite the spark of justice, passion for human rights and freedom for all.
Chag Urim Sameach! May you have a Happy Festival of Lights!
Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel is the Rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook.