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Of Movement, Maccabees and Millennia

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Naftali Schiff

A millennium countdown clock sits ticking away at my desk.

Y2K - with its posh parties, business shutdowns, and TV entertainment - is an apt opportunity for Jewish self-reflection. To what extent are we part of all this? How do we handle the alluring choice between Christmas lights and Chanukah candles? Do we feel more connected to the Christian millennium bash than we feel about our own four millennia of Jewish history and culture? What are we counting down to?


As opposed to "countdown," Judaism always prescribes "counting up." When a baby boy is born, we shower mazel tov wishes such as, "looking forward to the Bris on day eight…" During the Omer, which is the weeks between Passover and Shavuot (anniversary of receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai), we count upwards 50 days from the slavery of Egypt to the spiritual heights of Sinai. The Jewish year is a spiral extending ever upwards. Jewish life ascends.

Chanukah is the "count-up" festival par excellence. Throughout our millennia it has been a time when families get together to add "one more light" to the menorah each evening. Long ago we instituted the Talmudic dictum of Hillel "Mosif Ve Holech" (to add continually). On the first night we kindle one flame; by the end of Chanukah, eight lights burn brightly.

Chanukah has the same Hebrew root as chinuch - education. When we add a new light for each day of the festival, we are not merely participating in a ritual act. Rather we are molding the bedrock of our educational psyche. The Jewish way has always been to build up gradually, to encourage steady and increasing growth.


The Hebrew word chinuch has another basic meaning: dedication. This is the ingredient that ensures continuity. Dedication reflects the constant presence of a conscious ideal and commitment - a continuous awareness of the belief and ideal behind the study. The addition of a new light each day implies clarity and joy, perpetuating the passion of the original dedication.

The best place to light the Chanukah candles is at the threshold of the home. As we enter the house with the mezuzah on one side and the Chanukah menorah on the other, there is no mistaking the Jewish focus of the home. The threshold by definition is a dynamic spot - a point past which people move, but do not stop.

Chinuch is dynamic, moving, innovative and fresh. The great sage Hillel reminds us "udelo mosif, yesuf" (Talmud - Avot 1:3). He who does not add may just as well be dead. Life without striving to grow is not worth living. Judaism is not about arriving at a destination and retiring. It is about constant growth. A Bar Mitzvah must not be considered an exit pass from the road to growth.

King Solomon wrote: "Give chinuch to a young person according to his own path, and when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6). True dedication can only be nurtured when the individual sees relevance in Jewish wisdom to his own contemporary world; if he is made to feel an outsider peering into a strange world of irrelevant ritual, he is unlikely to continue.


Technically, Jewish law allows for the lighting of just one candle each night. It is ironic that Chanukah has been so widely adopted by the Jewish people in its most beautiful form, with each member of the household lighting an extra candle each night. Ironic because in many homes, this message has become confused. Rather than a celebration of unabashed Jewish pride, for some it has become a Jewish Christmas, an excuse for blinking lights and flurry of present exchanges.

The historical parallels between our generation and that of Chanukah are numerous. The Maccabees were fighting the war against assimilation.

In our generation, too, we are losing 50 percent of our community to assimilation. The Chanukah flames must remind us to unite with the overriding common purpose of rededication: Let the dancing flames ignite in us a clear, dynamic, dedicated pride in our Judaism.

Y2K is upon us. Will we count down? Or count up?

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