STRONGER TOGETHER: At a time of deep community divisions, Hanukkah holds lessons on the power of unity
On our many trips to Israel, our family had never spent much time in Tel Aviv because most of our friends and relatives live in the Jerusalem area. But a few years ago, when we were planning a visit to see our son, then serving in the Israel Defense Forces, we scheduled a couple of days in the great city on the sea.
I booked a reasonably priced hotel room somewhere near the beach and hoped for the best. To this day, my family teases me for choosing what turned out to be a ghastly choice of accommodations. But my predominant memory of our brief sojourn there is actually quite delightful.
The evening we checked in happened to be the fourth night of Hanukkah. When I walked into the lobby — overnight bag in one hand, Hanukkah menorah in the other — the young man behind the desk politely informed me that hotel policy forbade lighting flames in the rooms. After a brief back-and-forth, he agreed to let us to light our hanukkiah right there in the lobby. Realizing that this was my only option, I accepted the offer. We brought our luggage to the room, then returned to the lobby.
That’s when the unforgettable happened.
The hotel clerk already had laid out some aluminum foil for us, and was standing by, awaiting our return. I set down the hanukkiah and began to sing the blessings, and suddenly was surprised to hear another voice merge with mine: the clerk’s. Suddenly, the small group of people in the tiny lobby of this sketchy Tel Aviv hotel became an unlikely choir of randomly gathered Jews, together praising God for the miracles “in those days at this time.” Some of us had tears in our eyes.
There’s something about Hanukkah. Maybe it’s the arresting appeal of the few and the just overcoming the odds and achieving victory over the mighty many. Maybe it’s the delightful simplicity of the holiday’s main ritual. Perhaps it’s just the time of year. But Hanukkah generates a sense of Jewish unity, of Jewish solidarity and community, as no other occasion on the calendar does.
In wistful moments, we wish things could be this way more often, that the religious, ideological and political fault lines that divide us could become less deep and jagged, that our disputes could be the “arguments for the sake of heaven” that historically gave our people vitality, not poisonous discord. If only Hanukkah were a few hundred days longer.
If we listen closely to Hanukkah, though — to its story and its laws — we discover that it offers indispensable wisdom about how to hold together a community of differences, and about how a community that doesn’t agree on every issue still can learn to live and sing together.
It’s not widely understood why Judah the Maccabee and company specifically chose the 25th of Kislev as the day to rededicate the ancient Temple. The Syrian-Greeks had been successfully driven from Jerusalem months earlier, during the summer of 163 C.E. Yet Judah waited to rededicate the Temple, refraining from bringing his victory to its climax.
The group of people in the tiny lobby
of this sketchy Tel Aviv hotel became an unlikely choir of randomly gathered Jews.
The theory is that he delayed out of a desire to preserve the nation’s unity. The Chasidim of that era were traditionalist Jews who had joined the Maccabees’ resistance, ultimately deciding that the Maccabees’ cause justified fighting even on Shabbat. They also believed fervently that the human efforts to recapture Jerusalem would be capped by the fulfillment of messianic prophecies that God would make Himself known, and the End of Days would commence. So they asked Judah to wait for God to restore the Temple to its prior purity, confident that this would happen during the holidays in the month of Tishrei.
Judah himself believed that the Maccabees’ victory was supported by God, but ultimately engineered by humans. Nonetheless, in deference to the request of the Chasidim, he held off, hoping that the Temple’s rededication would bring together all the Jews in celebration. But when Sukkot ended, on the 22nd of Tishrei, no divine act had occurred.
The Chasidim again asked Judah to wait. Because of the upheavals wrought by Antiochus’ decrees, the Jewish calendar had not been intercalated for several years, so it could be as much as two months out of sync. Again, Judah honored their request, waiting until the 22nd of Kislev. When Divine intervention still hadn’t come, he declared that in three days — exactly three years after the Temple’s desecration — the menorah would be lit and the Temple re-consecrated to God.
It’s possible that if Judah simply had lit the menorah months earlier, over the objections of the Chasidim, Hanukkah never would have come to be. It might have become mired in Jewish sectarian controversy, and we would have lost the story and all that it has come to represent. Judah’s wisdom of waiting was the wisdom of recognizing that Jews interpret the world — and God’s role in it — differently. Judah understood that the greater our ability to hear and honor many voices, the greater the likelihood that we would be able to establish a calendar and to practice sacred rituals that unite us all.
Another piece of advice about how to hold together a community of differences comes from a legal discussion that plays out in the pages of the Mishnah. In many ways, it is the necessary complement to the lesson we drew from Judah Maccabee.
The Mishnah tells of a shopkeeper who, in accordance with halachah (Jewish law), lights his Hanukkah light just outside the door of his shop, which is also his home. When a camel laden with flax passes through the narrow street, the candle sets the flax aflame, and property is destroyed in the resulting fire. The Mishnah asks: Who is liable for the property damage? The flame lighter or the camel driver?
The Mishnah’s majority opinion (known as the Sages) applies the general rule that governs such matters: Anyone who puts a flame in a public thoroughfare is responsible for damages that may result. One Sage disagrees — Rabbi Yehuda. He argues that the shopkeeper should be held blameless because the laws of Hanukkah authorized him to place the flame in the potentially hazardous place.
The Mishnah doesn’t elaborate further on the reasoning behind the two opinions. But other rulings in the Mishnah might offer some insight. The Sages could point to the Mishnah that says that a homeowner is allowed to dispose of water that has accumulated in the home’s courtyard by pouring it into the public domain, and yet if anyone in the public domain should slip on that water, the homeowner is liable. Our deeds sometimes produce unintended consequences for others. When they do, even if our actions are legally permitted, we bear responsibility for those results. The same principle applies to the person who lights the Hanukkah light in a narrow street.
Rabbi Yehuda might object, strenuously distinguishing between emptying water from a courtyard (a discretionary act) and kindling the Hanukkah light (a commanded one). He would find support in a talmudic discussion about another topic: a person who runs through a crowded marketplace. The Talmud says that if the running person carelessly collides with a person who is walking, the runner is liable for damages — unless it happens to be a Friday. Why? Rabbi Yehuda would assert it’s because, on a Friday afternoon, the person is running through the marketplace for the sake of a mitzvah: preparing for Shabbat. And Jewish law cannot simultaneously mandate that you perform an action and also hold you liable for harm that might result. Wouldn’t the same apply to the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah light just outside one’s home?
In the end, though, the law follows the opinion of the Sages. Everyone who enters the marketplace on a Friday afternoon knows that people will be rushing, and implicitly accepts that risk. But when it comes to Hanukkah, the law requires only that the Hanukkah light be lit for half an hour. That’s a short enough time that a person who lights in a narrow street should stay nearby and keep close watch. There is no blanket exemption for a person doing a mitzvah.
Here is Hanukkah’s second lesson in preserving and encouraging communal unity. We need to reject the idea that being engaged in the performance of a mitzvah renders a Jew less responsible to those around him or her. To be sure, performing ritual mitzvot requires great attention to detail and we want to fulfill them in accordance with the law. It’s also true that within families and communities, people’s varying interpretations and religious practices can lead to tension, conflict and hurt feelings. The result is that moments that ought to be celebratory and filled with love instead become sources of resentment and division.
The Sages are teaching that when you’re performing a mitzvah, you need to be more — not less — conscious of those around you, and more — not less — sensitive to other people’s needs and welfare. That is not to say that every difference that arises has a neat and simple solution. We all know from personal experience that Passover seders and Shabbat dinners, weddings and even funerals can generate deeply rooted philosophical disagreements among the people who are trying to mark these events together. The important point is this: When we are engaged in performing a ritual mitzvah, we are also engaged in the interpersonal mitzvot of understanding the impact of our actions upon others, and taking responsibility to be sure that our Jewish decisions don’t bring injury to those around us.
If we listen closely to Hanukkah, we discover indispensable wisdom about how to hold together a community of differences.
A final insight arises from the situation in which a person is away from home on Hanukkah. According to Jewish law, a traveler may light the hanukkiah wherever he is sleeping, but the person isn’t obligated to light if his family back home is doing so. Still, even if the traveler isn’t lighting, if she should happen to see a lit hanukkiah, then she should recite the second of the two Hanukkah blessings, praising God, “who has wrought miracles for our ancestors in those days, at this time.”
What’s remarkable is that the traveler doesn’t need to know the identity of the lighter, and the lighter need not be conscious of the presence of the traveler. The two can share the light of the Hanukkah candles simply through the assumption that all of us are perpetually eager to help and support one another. Whatever our Jewish disagreements may be, we embrace thtis fundamental tenet of Jewish peoplehood. If there’s a way that we can support one another’s Jewish lives and journeys, then it should be our honor to do so.
“All of Israel are responsible to one another” is not an empty maxim, but a motto that should guide our lives. Each night of Hanukkah can be a moment of rededication to this principle if we remain conscious that we are lighting not only for ourselves and for our families, but for all of our fellow members of the tribe, whoever they are, wherever they reside and however they live and love their Judaism. Indeed, there may be no better place to wind up on the fourth night of Hanukkah than in the lobby of your accidental Tel Aviv hotel.
There’s something about Hanukkah. It generates a vibe of Jewish unity, of Jewish solidarity and community, as no other occasion on the calendar does. If we will it, the vibe of Hanukkah can become the vibe of Jewish life.
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi of B’nai David–Judea Congregation.