Open Letter to My Students 43: Hanukah for Adults

How is an adult like me to celebrate Hanukah? I am far too old for presents, as are my children, and even, pretty soon, my grandchildren, who live, in any event, too far away to light the candles with me. Yet I light them, mostly alone – but with an adult message of Hanukah spirituality in mind.

It starts with a single line of an 8th-century Hanukah prayer — largely forgotten today, but still around and sung by many who, however, are probably unaware of its spiritual implications. 

“These Lights are holy,” it says. 

Now, holiness has many connotations. As the primary value in Jewish tradition, it has accumulated many meanings over the 3,000 years of Jewish experience on this planet. But none is more surprising than this one.

“These lights are holy,” constitutes just the first half of the line. An explanation follows: “These lights are holy: we may not use them.”

Contrast the lights of Hanukah with those of Shabbat. Suppose, one Shabbat evening before bed, you are engrossed in a brilliant mystery novel. Just as you are about to discover “whodunit,” a freak December snowstorm shuts down your electricity. It’s Friday night, however, so you can finish your book by the light of the Shabbat candles. No problem. But suppose it is an extraordinarily large Hanukah candle glowing in the dark. Sorry: you are out of luck. “These lights are holy: we may not use them.” Unlike Shabbat lights, Hanukah lights are not utilitarian. 

That is not to say they do not have a purpose. There is a difference between the use we make of something for our own ends, and the inherent purpose that a thing has in and of itself. The distinction is sometimes used in thinking about art. To appreciate something artistically is to see it for its own sake, not for ours. We cannot, for example, look at the Mona Lisa with the view of figuring out whether we can buy copies of it for the hotel chain we are managing. Great art has, as it were, its own message for us, its own way of speaking to us. We properly appreciate it only when we engage with it on its own terms.  

Judaism’s word for “its own terms” is the Hebrew lishma, meaning, roughly, “for its own sake.” We describe Torah study, especially, as being lishma: studied for its own sake, not because, say, we can get a better job if we learn it. But Torah study is not without purpose; making us better people, perhaps, or surprising us with spiritual insight. 

So too with the holy lights of Hanukah. Their inherent purpose, says the Talmud is to shine the news of God’s miracle of light, recalling the days of the Maccabees; that’s all. We light them so that they may fulfil their purpose, lishma. Simply by looking at them we acknowledge the possibility of miracles. 

But we are to look at them disinterestedly: without our own interests in mind. We cannot read by their light, do the dishes by them, or carry them around the house to light our way. That would be a misuse of holiness. We might even say that holiness is wholly useless. To use the holy is inevitably to misuse it. 

The nonutilitarian nature of the holy has many applications. On Shabbat, for example, that weekly 7th-day outpost of holiness, we may not work, not because work is inevitably laborious, but because working on Shabbat the way we work on every other day would be to use Sabbat for our own ends. It is precisely by not using it that we gain benefit from it. When we try to use it, we lose that benefit.

Or consider Torah, which, as we saw, is to be studied lishma, for its own sake. The Rabbis warn us not “to use Torah as a spade to dig with” (Avot 4:5) – not to use it for our own ends. Technically, it is even forbidden to get paid for teaching it, because the teacher would then be using Torah to earn a living. Still, for Torah to be taught, we need Torah teachers, so in practice, Judaism allows us to pay them, but only for the work that they would otherwise be doing.

The synagogue too is holy, or, at least the sanctuary is.  Once upon a time, synagogues were single-room structures, not multi-purpose buildings with everything from board rooms to gymnasia. That single-room synagogue was likened to the central room of the Temple where sacrifices once took place (instead of sacrifices, we have prayers, “the offerings of our lips,” in rabbinic understanding). So the Rabbis rule, for example, that we may not use the synagogue as a shortcut (M. Meg. 3:3), going in one entrance and out the other to avoid going around the block in the driving rain. Synagogues are holy; we may enjoy their inherent purposes but we may not make extraneous use of them. 

Last, and finally, human beings are holy. The Rabbis discuss Temple priests who had to walk up a stone ramp to reach the altar where sacrifices occurred. As part of the altar structure, the ramp is holy, so the priests are advised to take tiny steps along it rather than great strides, lest the stones on which they walk are exposed to a view of the priestly underwear. There then follows a remarkable observation about the holiness of human beings (Mekhilta d’ Rabbi Yishma’el, Yitro 11). 

“Now, if God said, ‘Do not act disgracefully in the case of stones, which cannot intend good or evil,’ then all the more so, we should not act disgracefully in the case of other human beings, who are made in the image of the One who spoke and the world came into being.” In other words, we human beings who can intend good or evil are holier than the Temple itself, because we are made in the image of God. Human beings are holy: we are not permitted to use one another. .

What a Hanukah lesson for us, who regularly make the mistake of defining our worth in terms of what we achieve, how much we accomplish, how useful we have been! Hanukah lights remind us that there is a higher order of value than our achievements. Our true value lies in our holiness:  just being, not accomplishing. And, because we, like God, are able to devise good or evil, we are to “be” the kind of person who, also like God, chooses to be good. 

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