Dec 10, 2007

Channukah 5768: "Contagious Flames"

© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

On the eve of the Seventh night of Channukah, these thoughts are shared in hope that the many internal conversations in our communities continue and ignite a healthy flame in the world around us. The circle perhaps begins in every individual, touching our shul community, our local neighborhood, state, our Country, Israel, and the world. As our Channukah experiences have likely contained many moments, both joyous and sad, I pray that all our homes be filled with increased light.

One classic source for an understanding of Channukah is found in the Talmud, in which we read:

"Our Rabbis taught: The mitzvah of Channukah is one light for a person and their household. The 'beautifiers' (Mehadrin) kindle a light for each member of the household. The 'extreme beautifiers' (Mehadrin min HaMehadrin), — Beit Shammai maintains: On the first day they light eight lights and thereafter they are gradually reduced, but Beit Hillel says: On the first day they light one candle and thereafter they are progressively increased (TB Shabbat, 21b)."

This text teaches us that a Mitzvah can be performed according to its requirements, or can become beautified. The basic requirement for Channukah candles is one candle each night per home, and our contemporary practice of lighting one candle per night, per household member renders us 'extreme beautifiers.' And we are. We make the performance of the mitzvah more beautiful than we might.

And so I ask us to consider what it means to take an expected role and elevate it? What can it mean for any of us to confront a requirement and make it even more beautiful? Do we ever do that without realizing it, as we might do through the ritualized (expanded) fulfillment of our Channukah lights?

Classic disputes happen in Jewish tradition when words or ideas have multiple possible meanings, such as in a later interpretation of a phrase in the Mishnah "…a blessing is not said over the light until it has been utilized (M. Berachot 8:1)." The Gemara suggests that:

"if one could see a flame but could not use its light, or if could do something by the light but see no flame, she should not say the blessing; one must both see a flame and be able to use the light (TB Berachot 53b)."

A light is a light is a light, right? The Gemara suggests that an act performed can remain incomplete. It is possible, the Gemara proposes, to use a light without seeing the flame if the flame is hidden around the corner. But in what situation could we see the flame and not be able to make use of the light? The rabbis of the Gemara suggest that:

"it is when, for instance, the flame keeps on flickering… Our Rabbis taught: We may say the blessing over glowing coals but not over dying coals. How do you define 'glowing'? — Rabbi Chisda replied: This means coals from which a chip, if inserted between them, will catch of itself."

A mitzvah-flame that is lit, performed as required, that can only sustain itself is not enough. To be unaware "extreme beautifiers" is not enough. In order to transform the flickering candle into a glowing coal means to harness our fire and share it, so that if a fellow candle is brought close to us it will become illuminated.

This is our task, and I am overwhelmed and in awe and scared and excited and joyful and trembling. We are a home for so much goodness, and that is not enough. We learn Torah, comfort others in times of trouble, and respond to needs as they come up. But that doesn't make us "extreme beautifiers."

If a newcomer to our shuls does not feel ignited by the experience, which can only be communicated by the person sitting next to them – or who makes it a point to sit next to them and welcome them - we have not performed the act of community building enough.

If we are to truly become Mehadrin min HaMehadrin, Extreme Beautifiers, we are called to make these abilities and commitments contagious in the world around us, person by person.

May we be brave enough to light the lights we can - and then reach a bit deeper to light those still waiting.

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