Proper observance of Chanukah calls for commitment to greater action, to more intensive learning, to more generous giving, to more doing and less preaching.
There is an old custom that after reciting the blessing on the Chanukah candles one is to also recite the verse of Vihi Noam – “May the pleasant grace of the Lord our God be upon us: and the work of our hands confirm unto us.”
Why add these words after the brachot?
Unlike the other festivals, which celebrate the miracles and wonders brought about through the grace and mercy of God alone, Chanukah is a celebration of God’s grace and mercy coupled with the courage and bravery of the Hasmoneans.
God did not redeem the Temple by His grace. Rather, God graced the determination of those brave men and woman who actively fought the Hellenist desecration of the Temple and Jewish identity. The fight against assimilation, secularization, and ignorance can never be God’s alone. It is a fight that calls for “the work of our hands.”
When we succeed, as we did on Chanukah, we not only praise God with brachot, but we also extol “the work of our hands.”
But what of the fight when the enemy does not amass an army against us? The Talmud teaches that the proper time for kindling the Chanukah lights is “when the sun begins to set.” The simple reading might see in this the acknowledgement of the time to kindle the lights. However, the remez understanding recognizes that it is precisely when the sun sets, and darkness, fear, and trembling set in, that candles need to be lit.
With the dying sun, we fear eternal darkness will envelop us and never again will we enjoy the rays of light. Science has taught us not to fear for the rising of the next dawn, but how often in contemporary times do the statistics of assimilation, intermarriage and conversion make us fear for the future of our people?
Our Jewish population decreases. Jewish ignorance increases. This is the impending darkness we fear. It is precisely in response to such awesome and dark realities that more and more candles need to be lit. True, the approach of Beit Shamai, who advised that we begin with a big flame of eight candles so that we may burn through the contemporary scene of decay and Hellenism, may not be practical or advisable.
Instead, we follow Beit Hillel and begin with just one small candle. With a single spark. From the one little spark, we work our way up, slowly and surely, to bigger and stronger lights – mosif veholech.
How important are the Chanukah lights? Clearly, the rabbis felt they were very important. Among the laws of Chanukah we also find that “wicks and oils which may not be used on the Shabbat, may be used for Chanukah.” Reb Mendel of Kotzk claimed that neshomot, souls, that may resist even the beauty and sacredness of Shabbat, may be motivated by the observance of Chanukah. Even during Hasmonean days, when many Jews were alienated and removed from the mainstream of Judaism, they were, nevertheless, moved to join the struggle for Jewish independence, sovereignty and pride.
Another law regarding the lighting of the Chanukah menorah gets closer to the sod of Chanukah observance. If a Jew is unable to light or participate in the lighting of the menorah but merely sees a menorah belonging to someone else, he is permitted to recite two of the blessings recited when kindling the lights – She’asa nisim l’avoteinu (Who performed miracles for our forefathers) and Shehecheyanu (the blessing of gratitude for reaching a significant time or season.)
Understanding why one may recite the first blessing upon seeing the Chanukah lights seems self-evident – the flames are our tangible means of publicizing the occurrence of the miracle. But why must one also see the flames in order to recite Shehecheyanu? The fact that another Chanukah is here, and we are alive and well to usher it in, should be sufficient reason to give thanks and recognition to God.
The S’fas Emes explains, however, that merely being alive on the twenty-fifth of Kislev is not enough. One must see the flames and remember and understand what they represent. As Jews we must at least see the Chanukah lights – even if physically lighting them is an impossibility – and acknowledge our gratitude for the triumph of Torah’s light over Greece’s darkness, for Hasmonean commitment over Hellenistic compromise, for spiritual growth over physical gratification.