Chanukah 2023: A Message from Rabbi Bauman

Dear Touro Synagogue Family,

I pray you are feeling strong and safe. 

Tonight is the second night of Chanukah, and it feels particularly poignant to be bringing more light into the darkness as we go through such a difficult time for our people and for the world. Never has the symbolism of the menorah been more resonant than right now, when the darkness is pervasive and the light feels so far away.

There are two especially well known discussions in the Talmud regarding the practicalities of lighting the Chanukah lights, and I find them quite instructive for us at this moment.  They are on the same page of Talmud, Shabbat 21b. The first has to do with where t0 light the Chanukah lights. The second has to do with how to light them.

With regard to where to light them, our sages teach that we are to light them at the entrance of our home in order that we can publicize the miracle of the oil and the Maccabee’s victory.  If one lives on an upper level, one is to place them on the windowsill, again to ensure maximum visibility in the public domain. However, during times of danger for Jews, it is acceptable to light them at the table of an inner room.   

In other words, the way we show up in public changes depending on the circumstances in which we live. There is an evaluation that must take place for every family in every land as to whether it is safe to be identified as Jews.  Some years, in some places, we can share that mitzvah with the world. And in some years, in some places, we publicize the miracle just to ourselves. This mitzvah is adaptable to the most fundamental needs of a Jewish household and community at any given time and place. 

But then, in the conversation amongst our sages about how to light the lights, a controversy is recorded that gives way to a firm position. Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shamai famously argued about whether we should start with 8 candles and take one away each night (Shammai’s position), or we should start with 1 candle and increase by one each night (Hillel’s position). They both make compelling arguments, Shammai perhaps expressing a more logical position if one is trying to tell the story of the original miracle. (The Maccabees had the most oil on the first night.)  But in spite of this, Hillel emerges as the winner of the debate – of course – because we are always to increase, never decrease, in matters of holiness. 

In other words, how we light the menorah must always tell the same story: that of a community’s commitment to increasing light in the world, that of a Jewish people that continually cultivates hope, never submitting to despair.  In every place, at every time, this mitzvah is performed exactly the same way because in each distinct circumstance, a Jewish household must increase the light.

Chanukah takes place at the darkest time of the year. For our community, our darkest day in generations already happened.  We have, in a way, been in one long night since October 7, struggling to regain our footing in the wake of brutal violence inflicted upon us; catastrophic loss of life; the agony of our hostages and their families; the ugliness and fog of war that has created moral complexity beyond anything we’ve ever seen; the fear of rising antisemitism in our own city and country; and an internal Jewish struggle as we each address these challenges based upon our own experiences and orientations in the world.  Never have I known a more pervasive darkness for our people.  So this first festival since October 7 celebrating light is most welcome, most urgently needed, a gift of our tradition.

Where to light your menorah is, as our sages remind us, up to each household. There is not one right answer. But how to light that menorah is clearly mandated. We will, we must increase the light.  That may be the light of prayer and community, the light of togetherness with loved ones, the light of Jewish solidarity around the world, the light of compassion for the vulnerable – including the suffering of civilians in Gaza, the light of righteous action, the light of generosity, and, God willing, the light of hope for a brighter future for all. Chanukah’s message in this regard is as pure as the oil found in the Temple.

Wishing you a warm and bright Chanukah that fans the flames of resilience and hope for all of us,

Rabbi Katie Bauman