In My Own Words: Keep the lights burning

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

After a depressing Hanukkah during the first year of the pandemic, I worked hard to make certain I had a good holiday in 2021 and ‘22. That included getting presents all eight nights (something that never happened when I was a kid) and lighting all my menorahs the last night of the holiday. Since I bought most of the presents I was receiving (I only exchange gifts with one couple), it took planning to find gifts for eight nights of presents. Most were things I would purchase anyway (for example, the wall and daily calendars I always buy), but I tried different types of new low-sugar candy and bought one silly present each year (usually some kind of toy). Since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, though, I’ve been debating what to do this year: part of me thinks this is too frivolous; the other part believes that we need to keep the lights burning and bring as much joy as we can into the world, even if it’s silly joy.

After some thought, I decided to continue with my previous planned celebrations. That doesn’t mean I’m ignoring what’s happening in Israel, but, if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that Judaism has faced horrific events before and continued to exist. Our history includes the destruction of two Temples, exile from too many countries to list and the all too frequent calls for our annihilation. We continue because we celebrate Shabbat and our other holidays, from the most solemn to the most joyous, regardless of what the rest of the world thinks about us.

There was a debate about how one should light Hanukkah candles. Beit Shammai said we should light eight candles the first night and decrease the number of candles by one each day. Beit Hillel, on the other hand, felt that we should light one candle the first night and then add a candle each day until we reach eight. The ancient rabbis decided that we should follow the example of Beit Hillel because we are required to increase the amount of light in the world, not decrease it.

This year we need to balance the joy of the holiday and the sorrow we feel for those who were murdered or captured by Hamas. But to not light the lights, to not play dreidel or do whatever you usually do to have a joyous holiday is not the Jewish way. Our ancestors faced horrific times and kept the lights burning. Now, it’s our turn. May the light of Judaism burn strong and fierce. May we keep those candles burning.