Rejoice, for I Have Faith
There is a well-known Talmudic debate (Shabbat 21b) between rabbis Shamai and Hillel about the correct way to light the Hanukkah candles. According to Shamai, the candles should be lit in a descending order, i.e., light all eight candles on the first day and light one less candle on each of the following seven. Hillel advocated the opposite - to ascend in the number, i.e., light one candle on the first night and ascend to eight burning candles on the last.
One explanation for Shamai's descending approach is that we must constantly aspire to fulfill our potential for giving in this world, and therefore, we begin Hanukkah with the full impact of the light produced by eight candles. Hillel's more realistic approach embraces the notion that we do the best we can at any given moment, and encourages us to grow in our capacity every day. Shamai views the first night of Hanukkah both as a powerful testimony to the potential of good, and also as an important reminder, while on our individual journeys and as a Nation, to reflect on our fragility. This approach is somewhat more pessimistic in its view that once we reach a peak we immediately start a descent.
Israel - the Jewish homeland and my home - and Israeli society, could learn a lot from this Hanukkah candle-lighting dispute between Shamai and Hillel. This is especially true today, when we find ourselves once again immersed in turbulent internal and external conflicts and tensions, and witness to violent manifestations of racism within Israeli society. At the same time, there has been a terrifying return of atrocious terrorist attacks, and the incomprehensible attempt in a delicate political climate to legislate the Jewish nation-state law, which risks the democratic and Jewish values that Israel was founded on, so vital to its existence and well-being. The combination of all of these events makes me wonder if the days are getting darker not only because it is almost winter; and whether Shamai's approach is, in fact, the realistic one.
Fortunately, I feel that the nature of our Israeli winter, darker than other seasons, but mostly sunny and warm, and the fact that Hanukkah is around the corner, serve as ideal metaphors and hopeful signs for the possibility of t'shuvah (return or repentance) and the triumph of light - always present in Israel - but which don't always get the best public relations coverage or media attention. Our goal is to be a just nation, which means that ongoing action is needed to address the internal and external challenges we face. Yes, we struggle as a society, as a nation, and as individuals, but we fight for the light and for the good. There are many of us, in Israel and around the Jewish world, who share the concern and commitment to fulfill the ancient promise: Ki miTziyon teitzei Torah (For from out of Zion will come the Torah).
In 1892, in Odessa, poet, physician, and writer Shaul Tchernichovsky composed an inspiring poem that invites us to hold onto our faith despite the tensions that arise from the tragic gaps between the real and ideal, and between the values that Israel was founded on and the fragile journey we take towards implementing them. "I believe" is a powerful statement and prophecy for our time - a wonderful prayer to sing while we light the Hanukkah candles as individuals, families, communities, and a people.
This year, perhaps we need to light the Hanukkah candles according to the traditions of both Shamai and Hillel, one reminding us of the fragility of powerfulness and victory, and one inspiring us to patiently continue adding light into the world.
by Shaul Tchernichovsky
(translated from the Hebrew by Vivian Eden)
Rejoice for I have faith in friendship
I'll find a heart - in this I've faith -
A heart that shares in all my hopes,
A heart that feels both joy and pain.
And I shall keep faith in the future,
Though the day be yet unseen
Surely it will come when nations
All live in blessed peace.