While each of our chagim brings a singular atmosphere which emerges from its own unique energy, I have always felt that there was something particularly special about the yom tov of Chanukah. The physical setting of the Jew’s here and now perfectly mirrors the Chanukah story and messages it holds – light banishing darkness, miracles shattering nature, the warmth of Torah thawing the icy designs of our wicked enemies. The special spirit of this particular chag is magnified by the cold weather outside and the early onset of darkness this time of year which accentuates the light and warmth of our Chanukah candles. It is almost as if from the day we turn back the clock, we can feel the spirit of Chanukah begin to beckon.
Our tzaddikim teach that the way to ensure we get the most out our yomim tovim is by learning about them – not only the practical halachos to ensure that we know how to properly perform the mitzvos, but the inner dimension of those very laws; the deeper symbolism underlying our actions and the spiritual insight which manifests in the mitzvos hayom. In this essay, we are going to explore some of the deeper messages of this exalted chag, revealed to us by the primary disciple of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Reb Nosson of Nemirov, in his magnum opus, Likutei Halachos. (Hilchos Hashkamas Haboker, 4:16-19)
The Gemara relates a disagreement between the schools of Shamai and Hillel regarding the proper way to light the Menorah on the eight nights of Chanukah. (Shabbos 21b) Beis Shamai is of the opinion that on first night of Chanukah, we light all eight candles. On each subsequent night, “pocheis v’holeich“, we light one less candle, until, on the final night of Chanukah, we light only one candle. Beis Hillel argues, based on the Talmudic principle that “maalin b’kodesh v’lo moridin – it is fitting to increase holiness, not decrease”, that the proper manner of lighting the menorah is just the opposite: on the first night we light one candle and then “moseif v’holeich“, we add one candle each night until finally, on the eighth night of Chanukah, we light all eight candles of the menorah. The halacha is in accordance with Beis Hillel – we add a candle each night as Chanukah proceeds.
Friends, listen to the way Reb Nosson brilliantly penetrates to the depth of this Talmudic discord.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that just as the sicker the patient, the greater the doctor required to heal him, the same applies to spiritual ailments: a Jew who is very distant from Hashem can only be reached by the greatest tzaddik who knows how to transmit the deepest light of the Torah. The deeper the pit, the greater the beam necessary to illuminate the darkest depths. (Likutei Moharan 30:2)
Reb Nosson teaches that while all of yomim tovim render accessible the most exalted spiritual lights and present the opportunity for those lights to brighten the mundanity of our physical existence, the light of Chanukah an expression of the great light to which Rebbe Nachman refers – it derives from such a uniquely elevated place that it is able to illuminate the darkest situations and bring miraculous salvation in times of physical and spiritual hopelessness. This is the deeper meaning behind the halacha that the menorah must be lit specifically below ten tefachim, (Shulchan Aruch 671:6) a level to which, we are taught, the Shechina never descends any other time of year. (Succah 4b) The candles of the menorah embody the loftiest spiritual lights that are revealed on Chanukah – lights so elevated that they alone can illuminate the lowliest situations.
Reb Nosson teaches that there is a fundamental dispute between the tzaddikim throughout the ages regarding our response to great spiritual revelations. One camp holds that the greater the light, the more we need to conceal it from the wicked, from those who are not worthy of experiencing such powerful spiritual illumination. The other camp is of the opinion that on the contrary; the more Godliness a given medium in Judaism holds, the more we need to render it fit, by building proper vessels, for public consumption – particularly by the wicked who need this great light more than anyone else, as we learned above from Rebbe Nachman. They felt that it was proper to make use of these great moments and exalted Torah concepts to inspire those distant from our tradition and fan the flickering flames of their Jewishness.
(It is possible to suggest that the most recent iteration of this age-old dispute – which goes back to the Torah itself, as we shall see – was between the Chassidim and their detractors. One of the calling cards of the Chassidic movements was their willingness to translate the deepest Kabbalistic ideas into pseudo-psychological terms, bringing them down to the level of the simple Jew so that their lives might be illuminated by the spiritual grandeur of these lofty ideas. The is one of the reasons Rebbe Nachman of Breslov gave for his telling stories packed with Kabbalistic import and mystical symbolism. He felt that clothing the deepest depths of the Torah in this way would enable them to reach even simple Jews who wouldn’t be able to grasp these ideas otherwise. (See Likute Moharan 60:6) “The world tells stories to put people to sleep” he said. “I tell stories to wake people up”. The non-Chassidim protested this campaign fiercely, feeling that it was improper to provide access to the secrets of Torah to those that were not worthy.)
Reb Nosson teaches that this is the deeper theme underlying the dispute between Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel regarding the manner in which to light the menorah throughout Chanukah.
It is known that the many disagreements between Shamai and Hillel throughout Torah sheBa’al Peh were a product of their opposing natures and the contrasting roots of their particular souls. Shamai’s soul was rooted in middas haddin, the divine Trait of Strict-Judgment. The famous story of Shamai chasing away a would-be convert, whom he suspected of insincerity (Shabbos 31a) indicates this nature and his tendency toward “kapdanus l’sheim Shomayim“, unrelenting strictness on behalf of Hashem and the Torah. Indeed, in halachic disputes, Shamai almost always takes the stricter approach.
Hillel’s nature was almost polar opposite to that of Shamai, his bar pelugta. The Gemara relates that when that same would-be convert came to Hillel, he drew him close with affectionate words and responded to his questions with patience and love. Hillel reflected the mode of Hashem’s interaction with the world that transcends the straight and narrow of middas Haddin and reaches beyond what is at any given moment, to what could be, in the never-ending potentiality of a brighter future. This is why, in disputes with Shamai, Hillel most often takes a more lenient approach.
Perhaps the starkest example of their contrasting natures and the most applicable to the current discussion is a teaching in Avos D’Rav Nosson (2:9) which states that whereas Beis Shamai held that one should only teach Torah to one who is wise and comes from a distinguished family, Beis Hillel was of the opinion that Torah should be taught to all, because “the Jewish nation knew many sinners who were drawn to Torah study and emerged tzaddikim, chassidim, and k’sheirim.”
Here Reb Nosson of Nemirov says the deepest thing. He explains that the machlokes between the student of Shamai and the students of Hillel regarding the Chanukah candles is also an expression of their teachers’ variant focus. Both Hillel and Shamai agree that as the nights of Chanukah advance, the light of the miracle grows stronger – the miracle of the second night is greater than the first, the miracle of the third night is greater than the second; another night, and the candle was still burning! Says Beis Shamai: “Pocheis v’holeich“, each night we light one less. The greater the light, the less we are showing to those who aren’t worthy of access to the joy of this spiritual illumination. As the miracle grows, we gradually conceal the light, lighting one less candle each light to prevent the holiness from being accessed by those unworthy.
Beis Hillel, in accordance with the root of their teacher’s soul and the disposition it accorded him, holds just the opposite: “moseif v’holeich” – the greater the revelation of Hashem’s love through the miracle which grows with each successive night, the more we are showing to the whole world. Certainly, the proper vessels must be fashioned so that the blinding brilliance of the light does not overwhelm them, doing more harm than good, but it is the duty of the tzaddikim to utilize the highest revelations in Judaism to illuminate the dark lives of the wicked.
The Talmudic principle Hillel utilized to support his opinion is “Maalin b’kodesh v’lo moridin“. While, on a literally level, this statement means “It is fitting to increase holiness, not decrease”, Reb Nosson reveals a deeper understanding: the basis for Hillel’s shitah is “Maalin b’kodesh” – the higher one grows in his spirituality and closeness with Hashem, “v’lo moridin” – the more he must see to it that he isn’t pushing anyone else away. On the contrary, he must be sure to utilize his great insight to draw others up to his level, in the proper manner. (See Likutei Moharan Tinyana 58)
Reb Nosson teaches that this machlokes was the root of the dispute between Yosef HaTzaddik and his brothers. When the verse tells us that Yosef was “a youth, spending time with the children of Bilah and Zilpah” (Bereishis 37:2), the Torah is teaching us that he spent time with those Jews who weren’t of special yichus, drawing them close with words of Torah. When Rashi comments on this verse that Yosef “acted in the way of a youth”, he is referring to Yosef’s lowering himself to the level of the bnei hashefachos, couching the deepest ideas and loftiest lights in a manner accessible to them. The Shevatim, although they were tremendous tzaddikim in their own right, could not comprehend Yosef’s behavior and felt he was wrong to associate with these Jews of lowly stature. But Yosef shares the outlook of Hillel – his very name, “Yosef” hints to the expression of their position: “Moseif v’holeich“; the greater the light, the more we need to utilize it to illuminate the lives of those furthest from Hashem and His Torah.
Ultimately, says Reb Nosson, the halacha is in accordance with Hillel.
You know friends, many people think that on Chanukah we are commemorating the miracle that Hashem did for our forefathers thousands of years ago. The Chassidic masters teach that this simply isn’t the case. Chanukah isn’t a commemoration of a historic miracle; it is the yearly reexperiencing of the very same spiritual revelation that produced the original Chanukah miracle. (See Kedushas Levi, Kedushos L’Chanukah 1 and Meor Einyaim, Yisro, “Isah“) This means that each year, when we kindle the Chanukah lights surrounded by our family in the warmth of the Jewish home, we are bringing down the miraculous spirit anew, giving us the ability to believe that on these exalted nights, miracles can happen for you and me, here, today, in the spiritual darkness of 2018. Chanukah brings to the world the ability for a Jew to break out of the negative constraints of his or her natural circumstances, be they physical, spiritual, psychological, intellectual, familial, or financial.
And it is not despite our lowly state that the light of Chanukah reaches us. As Hillel revealed and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught, Hashem sends the loftiest spiritual lights to the world with the specific intention for them to shine upon the darkest depths with the tremendous power of their illumination. As the miraculous spirit of Chanukah deepens and broadens with each passing night, we light yet another candle, demonstrating the relevance that the growing spirit of Chanukah holds for you and I and the access even the lowest Jew in the world is granted, on the exalted days of Chanukah, to the greatest and most brilliant revelation of Hashem’s healing love and His undying belief in the potential of every single Jew.
Wishing all Jews everywhere ah lichtigen Chanukah!