Lighting the Way

| Hanukkah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Dec 15, 2001 / 5762 | Holidays

The traditional greeting for Hanukkah, Hag Urim Sameah, Happy Festival of Lights, speaks to the essence of our holiday observance — urim — which is the plural of the Hebrew ‘or’ meaning light. Indeed, rabbinic commentary underscores this plurality of light in alluding to three different and complementary sources of light: a light of creation, a light of revelation, and a light of redemption.

Our first allusion connects Hanukkah to creation. Once Adam was expelled from the Garden of Eden, leaving him vulnerable to the world around him and the vicissitudes of nature, he noticed the days becoming shorter and shorter. The light of the sun was diminishing. Adam’s limited understanding led him to believe that this was punishment for his sin. So Adam declared, “Woe is me! Perhaps it is because I spoiled this world that darkness is descending upon the world and God is returning the universe to chaos.” Out of a sense of fear and desperation, Adam prayed and fasted for eight days. But when the winter solstice arrived and he saw the days getting longer, he declared, “such is the way of the world.” Adam then observed eight days of feasting and celebration — in which Adam brought his own light into the world (BT Avodah Zarah 8a). The rabbis suggest that Adam was the first person to celebrate the festival of Hanukkah and in so doing he brought a light of creation into our world.

The second light is the one with which we are all familiar, that of revelation. God declares God’s presence through the precious miracle of the lights of Hanukkah: a tiny cruse of oil lasting eight days (BT Shabbat 21b).

Finally, the third light is that of redemption. How so? A poignant midrash plays on our theme of light probing the question of why Abraham is chosen by God. The midrash asks, “to whom may Abraham be likened?” “To a king’s friend, who saw the king walking about in dark alleys and began lighting the way for him through a window. When the king looked up and saw him, he said: instead of lighting the way for me from a distance, come out and light the way for me in my very presence. So too did God say to Abraham, hithalekh lifanei, ‘Walk before Me!’: instead of lighting the way for Me from a distance in Mesopotamia, come light the way for Me in my very presence — in the Land of Israel” (B’reishit Rabbah 30:10). What is so striking about this midrash and why is this the light of redemption? Abraham, a human being, leads the way for God. He walks before God and creates his own light before God. That is the truest light of redemption — when we as human beings light the way for God.

May each of us experience these three lights of creation, revelation and redemption and may each of us come to truly light the way before God.

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.