Saturday, December 12, 2009

Lights that Reach the Lowest Place

Though I didn’t grow up in an observant home, there was one holiday whose laws we kept with strict adherence. Every night of Hanukkah the menorahs were set on the table, each one with the appropriate number of multi-colored candles ready to be lit, accompanied by small sacks of plastic netting filled with chocolate coins, and a wrapped present for each member of the family.

Hanukkah, unlike the other Jewish holidays, is embraced in all of its particulars in a way that no other holiday is. One could cynically argue that the Western consumer culture of the holiday season in December gives Hanukkah extra credence. But I believe there is more to the matter.

Netivot Shalom, a recent Chasidic work written by the previous rebbe of Slonim, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovski, offers a different answer. He points out a unique halacha about the placement of the Hanukkah candles. As opposed to Shabbat candles, which should be placed no lower than 10 handbreadths above the ground, Hanukkah candles ideally should be placed above 3 and lower than 10 handbreadths from the ground.

What is the significance of placing Hanukkah candles in such a low place?

The decrees made by the Greeks were a part of a spiritual war waged against Israel; under punishment of death they were not allowed to keep Shabbat, perform circumcision, sanctify the new moon, or learn Torah. Without their connection to mitzvot, the Jews fell to a destitute spiritual level. Yet even in this lowly state, void of mitzvot, Hashem saved them from the oppression and made a miracle in the Temple.

The holiday maintains this message. No matter how far a Jew is from observance-- even from Jewish identity-- still the lights of Hanukkah speak to him or her. There are no spiritual prerequisites to connect to these miracles. Just as it was then, so too now; it’s the holiday that reaches down and speaks to every Jew, and brings light to those places that are farthest from it.

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