This Shabbat we begin the most unique holiday of Chanukah. The most striking element of Chanukah is in my mind, its progressive dynamic nature. Most of our holidays are of a much more simple type: we mark, celebrate and observe them in a static way. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Purim are short events that carry their individual messages in a uniform manner. Sukkoth and Pesach, while being seven or eight days long, actually seem to deteriorate with time. In both cases the fullest manifestation of the chag is on the first day. The Seder is definitely the highlight of Pesach, while the remainder of the week does not even warrant the reciting of the full Hallel. Sukkoth as well is “top- heavy” if we note the halacha that one MUST eat in the Sukah on the first night of Sukkoth while for the remainder of the chag, if one avoids any type of food that obligates one to eat in the Sukah, one need not set foot in the Sukah at all. (It is worth noting that the final day Shmini Atzeret is not a full member of Sukkoth as it enjoys independent status).
Chanukah is the celebration that progresses and intensifies from day to day. Despite the fact that this seems to be self evident, I would like to take the time to prove the obvious.
The Gemara in Shabbat tells us of a famous debate between Bet Hillel and Bet Shamai as to the number of candles to be lit each day. Bet Shamai believe that on the first day we should light eight and work our way down to just one light on the last day. Bet Hillel argue and posit that we should do just the opposite, which of course is the Halacha today. The rationale given by Bet Hillel is “Maalin Bakodesh V’een Moredeen” we increase in Kedusha and do not decrease. Clearly the act of adding an extra light on every night symbolizes the increased intensity of the holiday. The excitement evident in any child’s (and adult’s) eyes watching the Chanukiah fill up is clearly felt. (Just imagine if we were to light the same number of candles each day of Chanukah, would the same amount of people be lighting on the seventh or eighth day as did on the first?)
The lighting of the nerot Chanukah is one of the only mitzvoth in which we are given differing levels of fulfilling the mitzvah. The Gemara tells us that on the most basic level we are to have one candle per household, the next best is to have a candle for each person and finally the best is to have an increasing number each day (according to bet Hillel). In general we are told of one way in which to fulfill a mitzvah. (Today we are used to the concepts of “lechatchila” and “bedieved” but these differing levels of fulfillment are usually simply a result of trying to fulfill as many opinions as possible (lechatchila) and being willing to suffice with “satisfying some of the people some of the time” (beideved). In this case the three levels are mandated by the Gemara as three legitimate ways of fulfilling the mitzvah.
This concept of increasing the level of fulfillment echoes in many other details of the lighting such as the materials used in the construction of the chanukiah (gold) and the fuel used to burn (olive oil in deference to the miracle and in fact any efficient fuel in an attempt to guarantee the maximum exposure of the candles).
I think this particular holiday represent dynamics and increasing holiness because of the original miracle. If we focus on the stage immediatlty prior to the famous miracle we find a very interesting Gemara. The Gemara in Rosh Hashanah tells us of the crisis that faced the Chashmonaim upon their victory. They entered the mikdash and began the rededication of the mikdash and found that they lacked something much more basic than pure olive oil- they lacked the Menorah itself. (RH 24b) “[At first they used] iron spikes coated in Babbitt, later when they had more money they made it out of silver and when they later had even more funds they made it out of gold”. The very construction of the Menorah was an incremental process, moving step by step until finally reaching the ultimate goal.
Most obviously the famous “oil miracle” followed very much the same pattern. Each and every day the miracle became more and more amazing. There is a famous question attributed to the Bet Yosef (which actually dates much further back) as to why we celebrate eight days if one of the days was not miraculous at all as they had enough oil for one day? Hundreds of answers have been offered to this question but the assumption of the question is that the first day cannot be seen as the most intense part of the holiday.
The Message of Chanukah
I believe that we are asked to learn the story carefully and to begin to conduct our lives in its spirit. How simple would it have been for those at the time of the Chashmonaim to present very solid arguments as to why it was impossible to fulfill the mitzvah of the Menorah. The arguments would state that for both spiritual reasons (a pseudo Menorah that does not match the description in the Torah) and physical ones (not enough oil to last) we should simply forget about it and try again later when all of the conditions are optimal.
The message of the Chashmonaim is exactly the opposite. They seized the opportunity that they had and employed all resources at their disposal in order to fulfill the mitzvah. True it was not going to be the most elegant nor did they have any idea while lighting on the first day that there would even be a second day, yet that did not stop them.
We are meant to act, using what we have, as imperfect as it may be, while at the same time keeping our sights out for the ultimate fulfillment of all mitzvoth. We appreciate “Ner ish ubeto” the one candle per household as a legitimate and therefore precious option while we all strive to be “mehadrin min hamehadrin” and each and every day add another light.