Beit Midrash

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To dedicate this lesson



Rabbi Berel Wein

Chanuka in its halachic discussions and various applications represents the necessary two components of Jewish life. These are reality and potential. We are all aware of the differing opinions of Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel regarding the number of flames/lights that are to be kindled each night during the eight day holiday of Chanuka. The opinion of Beit Shamai is that on the first night of Chanuka all eight flames are to be kindled while Beit Hillel is of the opinion that only one flame is to be kindled. Beit Shamai is of the opinion that the number of flames is to be diminished each night so that on the final night of Chanuka only one flame will be kindled. Beit Hillel on the other hand increases the number of flames to be lit each night of the holiday so that on the final night of Chanuka all eight flames will be lit and burn brightly. Though there many different interpretations advanced by the Talmud and the commentaries as to the basis of these differing opinions the one that I have always found relevant to me is that Beit Shamai is always dealing with potential while Beit Hillel deals with reality and actuality. Thus on the first night of Chanuka there is a potential for eight days of holiday to come yet and therefore Beit Shamai suggests that all eight lights be kindled. However Beit Hillel in dealing with the actuality of the situation states that only one day of the holiday has arrived and therefore only one light is to be kindled. And these two different views will naturally govern the amount of lights to be kindled on all of the successive nights of Chanuka as well.

The halachic process always busies itself with deciding in a practical manner which of two conflicting opinions is to become the practice of normative Judaism. The halacha has taught us that we follow the opinion of Beit Hillel in our fulfillment of the ritual of lighting the Chanuka flames. Yet the opinion of Beit Shamai is not to be ignored and completely discarded. The Talmud teaches us that the opinions of Beit Shamai and of Beit Hillel are both "the words of the living God." We humans can only in practice follow one of the opinions and the halacha has instituted the opinion of Beit Hillel as the accepted practice of Jewish tradition and society. But we are bidden not to forget the underlying value that the opinion of Beit Shamai represents. A society that lives only in the present and deals exclusively with the reality that it faces eventually loses spirit, drive and enthusiasm. Actuality rarely creates innovation and creativity. Those qualities stem from intuition, seeing potential, and if you wish, dreams and as yet unrealized ideals. In education many times the failure of the school or the teacher and thus of the pupil as well stems from seeing the student only in his or her present actuality and ignoring the great potential that lies within the young. When I was the head of a yeshiva in Monsey, New York, the great sage Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky warned me about the treatment of the mischievous student. He told me that he should not be summarily expelled from the school since mischievous students many times are the ones that usually possess great potential which in later life when activated will be of benefit to all.

Chanuka represents the combination of these two essential values in Jewish national and personal life. The military victory of the Hasmoneans over the pagan Syrian Greek idolaters was necessary and practical and realistic. It restored Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel and because of it Jewish rule continued for more than one hundred years until the arrival of Pompeii and the Romans in the country. Chanuka must therefore commemorate that physical, practical military victory. But Chanuka also represents the rededication of the Temple to its holy service and purpose. Holiness and spiritual achievements are always measured not only in terms of their current achievements but in their unlimited potential for later generations as well. The lights of Chanuka kindled almost twenty two centuries ago are still the spark that kindles our Chanuka lamps in our homes and society today. The miracle of the small cruse of oil that somehow burned for eight days was the harbinger of the story of the inexplicable potential of the Jewish people to survive and still flourish in the dark night of an awful exile. Therefore Chanuka bids us to be practical and realistic in our behavior and policies. But it also guides us to see beyond the moment and to see the great potential that lies within Jews and Jewish society and to attempt thereupon to actualize that potential. The reality of the problems that face us should never be allowed to eclipse the talented, holy potential that lives within us.
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