A lot of the practices of Hanukah are aimed at children. I understand that it has partly to do with the proximity of Hanukah to Christmas, the gaiety of the candle-lighting, the “family feeling” that the holiday has come to assume — especially in America — and so on.

For a young child, the observance of the holiday begins with seeing the candles being lit. Once their Jewish education has begun, they hear the story of the Maccabees and the oil that burned for eight days. That’s mostly as far as it goes.

But once a child has reached adolescence and then moved on to adulthood, the holiday remains the same: lights, eight days, a special song or two, maybe gifts and always fried foods. There’s no progression in teaching or learning about deeper, broader meanings of the holiday. Every year is the same.

Instead, each year, something new should be learned; some further meaning should be found or revealed. There’s certainly enough material from within tradition. Why not use it?

I far prefer the Hasidic or midrashic interpretations to the more academic ones. I find them much more inspiring. It can be interesting to learn about the roots of Hanukah in the observance of Sukkot. It can be interesting — if a bit discouraging — to learn that the Hashmoni’im (the Hasmoneans), who were the “good guys” of the Hanukah story, did not remain so in subsequent history. The amount of modern literature to be found online is overwhelming. But in the end, it’s the personal meaning that the holiday has for me — what it teaches me about my own life and my own spiritual growth — that attracts me the most. 

Here’s one Hasidic teaching — 

“[Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz] said: ‘For 36 hours, Adam enjoyed the Divine Light that was created on the first day and was superseded later by the sunlight; then it was hidden. On Hanukah, this Divine Light inspired the victory of the ancient Hasidim [the Hashmoni’im or Hasmoneans], and for this reason 36 lights are kindled on Hanukah as a memorial for the 36 hours that the First Man enjoyed it. Since then, this Divine Light has inspired the creation of the 36 Tractates of the Talmud. The Messiah will redeem us by this Divine Light’.” [1]

Rabbi Joseph Gelberman used to say: “Never ‘instead of’; always ‘in addition to’.”

Doesn’t this teaching by the Koretzer Rebbe add considerable depth and breadth to the story that is usually recounted — without in any way replacing or supplanting that story and its importance? 

It occurs to me that we might even learn something different each night before or after the lighting. We can tailor the readings to who is with us, but the context of this blog post is making the holiday meaningful to adults. So — a different reading each night, perhaps including samples from Talmud, midrash, kabbalah, musar, hasidut, etc., might be appropriate.

A couple of years ago, I provided readings for each night, based on “light” or becoming “enlightened.”

One of the themes of the oil lasting eight nights is that God’s power is beyond the limits of “nature.” Perhaps a reading each night could reflect that, using examples from Torah. For example:

“Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing.
So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?’

Then the LORD said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’
Is anything too hard for the LORD’?” [2]

It’s also possible to use examples from other parts of TaNaCh, especially episodes that don’t appear in a haftarah. These readings can serve further educational purposes beyond the inspirational ones, by making them more familiar to more people. For example:

“Elisha [the prophet and chief disciple of Eliyahu] died and was buried…
Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.” [3]

Similar samples could also be drawn from the aggadah — the rabbinic illustrative stories about God — which could also serve wider educational and inspirational purposes.

“Rabbi Yose b. Katzarta said, ‘A mortal is able to carve out a road on the hills or valley. Can he do so in the water? But with the Blessed Holy One, it states (Ps. 77:20) ‘Your road is in the sea and Your path in the great waters.’ He makes Himself a path in every place’.” [4]

I’d even suggest that before we light the menorah/hanukiah each night, we might wash our hands with the 2-handled n’tilat yadayim cup (without saying a bracha/blessing), in emulation of the ritual washing that the kohanim did before entering the Mishkan/Temple to light the menorah(s) twice each day.

Although I admit that some of the purely “historical” research can be useful, it leaves me emotionally flat. There can be a place for it, but for me, not a major one. Still, as an educator, I have to agree that if it helps a rabbi, cantor or teacher to make the holiday more meaningful for a specific group or congregation, then go for it. But don’t do the same material each year.

10 years ago, on Shabbat Miketz (on Dec. 8 this year), I was invited to give the Shabbat sermon at a large Conservative synagogue, because I had previously sent the rabbi an essay I’d written applying the inspirational teachings of Hanukah to the economic crisis that America was undergoing at the time. In short, I pointed out that the whole story of Hanukah — including the Maccabees’ success and the burning of the oil for 8 days — affirms for us that God is able to do absolutely anything to help us even more than we can imagine, and that we should internalize that thought in facing the economic crisis. There was no reason for worry; only reason for faith, even if we had to strengthen ours. In the sermon, I also quoted from the text “Hovot ha-Levavot/Duties of the Heart” and a verse from Zechariah/haftarah Miketz. The rabbi later told me that he got positive comments about the sermon for weeks afterwards.

That would be one example of what I mean by “Hanukah for Adults.”

The yearly teachings about Hanukah should bring joy and happiness to those who are being taught. 

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[1] Newman, Louis I.; The Hasidic Anthology; p. 162
[2] Ber./Gen. 18:11-14
[3] II Kings 13:20-21
[the implication being that God brought the man back to life. Through Elisha’s closeness to God, the man was brought back to life, even after Elisha himself had died]
[4] Konowitz, Israel; The God Idea in Jewish Tradition; p. 72
[from Midrash Tanchuma on parsha “VaYeshev,” number 11; the implication is that God’s power extends over all aspects of Creation, far beyond what mortals can do]

Hag Hanukah Sameach