Weekly Sermon



I’m sure you’ve heard Chanukah referred to as a minor holiday—that the only reason it’s become so popular is because of its proximity to Christmas...and that in our desire to match the glitter of Christmas with a holiday of our own, we’ve over-stated the importance and the observance of Chanukah. We exchange gifts like the Christians do, even though Purim is our holiday for gifts and not Chanukah. We send Chanukah cards just like Christians send Christmas cards. And we have lavish Chanukah parties—well we used to pre-Covid—to match our neighbors’ Christmas parties. Chanukah is no big deal. We’ve made it a big deal just because of Christmas. 

WRONG!! It’s a mistake to conclude that Chanukah is just a minor holiday. Listen to Maimonides, who lived among Arabs who didn’t celebrate Christmas, who writes that the lighting of the Chanukah menorah is:

         an extremely beloved mitzvah...Even if a person has nothing to eat, and has to accept charity to survive, he should sell some of his clothing, if necessary, to buy oil and wicks to light the Chanukah lights...If he only has one small coin and must therefore choose between purchasing oil for the Chanukah menorah and wine for Shabbat Kiddush, he should buy the oil for the Chanukah menorah.

It seems from Maimonides that Chanukah is an important holiday.

Chanukah speaks to the Jewish soul in a way that no other holiday does. If you take a look at all the surveys of the American Jewish community, you will see that lighting the Chanukah menorah is the one ritual more Jews do every year than any other. What is it about Chanukah that draws in every Jewish soul? It’s not the gifts nor the cards nor the parties—not even the latkes. It’s the light, the Chanukah lights. Jews don’t celebrate the miracle of the military victory of the Maccabees over the mightier Syrian Greeks that terrorized them. No, they celebrate the miracle of light they brought into Gd’s house by lighting the Menorah right away and not waiting till sufficient pure oil could be found. We celebrate the miracle of that Gdly light lasting 8 days till new pure holy oil could be made.

Kabbalah teaches that the lighting of the Chanukah lights is a re-enactment of the 1st moment of creation, when Gd said, “Let there be light.” Even though we may not understand it in our heads, we get it in our kishkas, our guts, that it is this light, representing the light of Gd that draws us all to Chanukah. It’s the light that helps us look beyond the shadows of our world and see the truth.

Let me read you a story that demonstrates the strong pull of the Chanukah lights on the Jewish soul. It’s about a 12-year-old boy in Auschwitz whose Bar Mitzvah was supposed to be during Chanukah: Since it was impossible to be called to the Torah for his Bar Mitzvah, he decided to commemorate it by fulfilling the mitzvah of the Chanukah lights instead. So, a few weeks before Chanukah, he began to save potato peels and crumbs and fashion them into makeshift candles. 

         When Chanukah arrived, he lit his little candles with great pride, but also with great fear. As fate would have it, during one night of Chanukah, however, there was a surprise inspection. Before he knew it, a German officer ordered him to explain the candles. Defiantly he announced that it was the Festival of Lights. The officer then ordered him to put out the lights. Then, in a quiet voice, with a courage he didn’t know he had, looked up and said, “Sir, Jews don’t extinguish light, we bring light into the world.” And for some unfathomable reason, the officer —instead of shooting the boy right then and there—turned around and walked away. 

How could this young boy defy the German military machine? And with what? Potato peels and crumbs? From where did he get that Maccabean courage? He probably couldn’t explain it, but I’m sure he felt deep within him that when one is with the light, when one is with Gd, one can weather any storm. As that Bar Mitzvah boy of Auschwitz said to the German officer, “Jews don’t extinguish light, we bring light into the world!”

One more storys: Before the former Soviet Union let Jews leave for Israel, Jews used to hire guides to smuggle them out. One Chanukah a group of Jews were playing “cat and mouse” with a Soviet army patrol as they approached the border. When the guide thought they had lost the patrol, he announced a ½-hour break before continuing the trek. One of the escapees, hearing the magic number of ½-half hour—the minimum time a Chanukah candle must be lit to fulfill the mitzvah—pulled out his menorah, set up the candles, said the blessing and began lighting the candles. The other escapees immediately pounced upon him and the menorah to put out the candles. Just then the Soviet patrol moved in and encircled them.

         The head of the army patrol told them: “We were just about to open fire and wipe you out when I saw that man lighting the Chanukah candles. I was overcome with emotion; I remember my zaide lighting Chanukah candles...I have decided to let you go in peace.”

Is this not a Chanukah lights miracle? This Jew elevated himself as he braved all the dangers for a chance to do a mitzvah and deep within him the Soviet officer remembered the power of those lights from his youth and let him go!

Yes, there’s light hidden in everything. King Solomon taught (Proverbs 20:27): Neyr Hashem nismat adam, “Gd’s candle—Gd’s light—is the soul of a person.” Being Gd’s candles, helping to bring out the light hidden in the world is our job as Jews.                                          

A Parisian artist once complained to the renowned sculptor Jacques Lipchitz that he was unhappy with the quality of the light he was painting. He had even gone to Morocco in search of a better light, but to no avail. “An artist’s light,” Lipchitz told him, “comes not from without, but from within.”

And so, my friends, it is for us. When we gaze tonight at the 7 lights of the menorah on this 7th night of Chanukah, may it help draw out that unique light hidden within us all. Amen!



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