Chanukah was way better than the holiday my friends celebrated. Sure, I envied the red and green stocking that Colleen got on the end of her bed stuffed with enough chocolate and candy to start a small shop, but my friends got gifts on one day only. My brother and I got gifts on eight days.
The gifts were usually graded. On the first day of Chanukah we got the biggest gift. One year it was enormous Fisher Price garage. Another year I got two ivory bracelets. Just like my mom’s, but small enough to slide over my wrist and stay there. Kenya – where I grew up – in the early 80s was light years away from banning poaching, so the bracelets clicked and clacked merrily on my wrist until our eyes were opened to the barbarous cruelty.
But Chanukah was about more than gifts. It also meant lighting the chanukiah. As far back as I can remember, I loved the ceremony. The berachot and the singing that followed seemed to link me to something much bigger than myself. When we were old enough, my father gave over the task of lighting to my brother, Ilan, and me. We took turns lighting the candles on alternate nights. Once the colorful wax candles were lit and burning in our brass chanukiah, we’d sing the first verse of Ma’oz Tzur. We didn’t know the rest.
I wanted to know more about Chanukah. Why did we light candles? Why did our menorah have nine branches, while the menorah on the green decorative plate that hung near our front door had only seven?
My father told me about the Temple that we used to have in Jerusalem, how the Greeks had destroyed it and spilled all the oil, how the Jews found one jar that miraculously lasted eight days. The candles, he told me, reminded us of the miracle.
I was a curious child. Colleen would tell me that I picked up information out the air, much like a bat. Often, my curiosity left me feeling vaguely frustrated. There was more to know about Chanukah, I was almost sure of it, but Kenya, when I was a child in the pre-internet times, was insulated from the rest of the world. The Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, while officially Orthodox, didn’t have an educational system in place and Chabad had yet to venture into the heart of Africa. Consequently, my questions remained unanswered. One day, I promised myself, I would know all the answers, so that when my children asked me, I’d be able to tell them. Until then, I was happy to let Ilan light on the first night, because that meant that I’d get to light all eight candles on the last night.
My quest for knowledge became life-changing. Like a bat (I didn’t mind the negativity associated with the flying mammals – I’m short-sighted anyway so there was a ring of truth to the simile), I honed in on the answers I’d been searching for. Several miracles and ten years down the line, my husband was lighting olive oil in little vials in the window of our minuscule rented apartment in Jerusalem while our nine-month-old daughter tottered around holding onto the furniture. More miracles and another five years later, my son was lighting wax candles next to the olive oil chanukiah that my husband lit in the window of our very own apartment in Beit Shemesh. Several more miracles and years later, both sons are lighting their olive oil chanukiahs in yeshiva and I’m baking dreidel cookies with my daughters in anticipation of the boys coming home on vacation.
I never did reveal to any of my children why we light Chanukah candles: by the time we got to talking about Chanukah, they already knew all about the miracle of the cruse of oil and the difference between the menorah in the Beis Hamikdash and the chanukiah at home.
On the surface, it appears that I’ve come full-circle. Except that I haven’t. And it isn’t just because my husband and I don’t give Chanukah gifts. I haven’t come full-circle because life isn’t about a neat meeting-point of a curved line. Life is about going deeper. Unearthing level after level of deeper understanding behind what we do. Of what is happening thanks to the lights of Chanukah.
As a child, my father taught me that Hashem commanded us to light candles to commemorate the victory over the Greeks. This year, thanks to Kol Todah, a newsletter that is all about developing the trait of gratitude, I learned that the Gemara which tells us that the days of Chanukah were designated for praise and thanksgiving, mentions nothing about kindling lights! How odd! Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, zt”l, explains the conundrum. He writes that the mitzvah of Chanukah candles was instituted mainly to arouse us to thank and praise Hashem. The candles are simply a catalyst for this mitzvah.
When I read this explanation, I thought back to the candles that my family lit in Kenya. I didn’t realize then, that the flickering flames, which we were lighting to commemorate the Jewish victory over the Greeks in the past, were actually a harbinger of the miracle that would take place in my future: my own personal triumph over the darkness of exile. A miracle happened. Now it’s up to me to thank and praise Hashem for making it happen. It’s up to me to teach my children to thank and praise Hashem for the daily blessings and the miracles in their lives. Because the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles, doesn’t stop with lighting the candles.