We usually associate the festival of Chanukah with eight days of simcha or happiness. After all, it is relatively easy to observe, and we get to eat delicious doughnuts which seem to get bigger and better each year. The fact that Chanukah also coincides with the end of the academic year is also reason to celebrate, especially after another challenging year. However, unlike the rest of our festivals, Chanukah is the one festival whose name is the most difficult to understand. Some say that Chanukah comes from the word lechanech, to dedicate, alluding to the rededication of the Temple. Others say it is made up of chanu and kah meaning they rested or camped on the 25th (of Kislev) represented by the letters chaf and heh. Perhaps of most relevant is the idea that the word Chanukah is related to the word Chinuch meaning education. So, in reflecting on the year we have had, what are the eight lessons we can learn from Chanukah about chinuch?
We begin Chanukah by using the shamash (servant candle) to light one lone candle on the first night of Chanukah. Thereafter, on each consecutive night, we continue to light an additional candle until all eight candles are lit on the final night. The process of learning, of being educated follows a similar pattern. In order to learn something or to remember something, we have to start small. Once we know this, we can continue learning. Over time, we are able to learn more and more. Of course, as we do on Chanukah, we re-light the first candle on each night reminding us of the importance of revising or reviewing. Every time we do this, our learning becomes stronger just as the flames of the chanukiyah, as we increase the number of candles.
Each of the eight candles stand tall and proud next to each other on the chanukiyah. The base of each candle is firmly set in place, and when lit, the flames reach for the heavens. So too, we rely on our parents and families who have forged solid foundations for our students upon which we can continue to build. We strive to foster critical thought, cultural interests, tolerance, social responsibility, and self-discipline, all of which are underpinned by Jewish values. Like the flames, we encourage our students to aspire to achieve excellent standards, to always reach as high as they can in order to achieve their personal best.
On Chanukah, if one forgets to light candles on any night, they can always continue lighting the following night. If I forget to light two candles on the second night, I can light three candles on the third night. I don’t have to stop lighting because I missed one night. This teaches us that it is OK to make mistakes because that is how we learn, and by learning we are able to grow. In order to learn from my mistakes, I need to acknowledge that I made a mistake. The lighting of the candles teaches us that there is nothing wrong with making a mistake as long as we learn from it. Forgetting to light on the second night, will not impact on all eight candles burning on the last night. They will continue to shine just as bright if I had lit candles on the second night. No difference. In the end, it is the fact that I have grown from the experience that counts.
One of the most powerful mitzvot of Chanukah teaches that it is more important to share your oil, so that others, who may have no oil, can light, even if you only have enough for eight days. This is because it is better to share allowing others to fulfil the mitzvah, even if it means you aren’t able to light your candles every night. Education requires two parties, one to teach and one to learn. If either are absent, there can’t be any teaching or learning. Teachers share their learning with their students, but they too learn from their students. Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, leader of the Jewish people following the destruction of the Second Temple is credited with saying “I learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues but most from my students”. It is this sharing of knowledge that we learn from the mitzvah of sharing our oil that enables both our teachers and students to learn.
There is a unique mitzvah on Chanukah to publicise the miracle. We do this by placing the chanukiyah near a window facing the street, so others can see it. This reminds us, that we too should be proud of our Jewish identity. We are not required to go out of our way to do this, but this custom reminds us that it is important to demonstrate pride in who we are as a people. Like the chanukiyot we all light which are so different, we too display our pride in different ways. Regardless, as long as we are imbuing in our children a sense of pride in their people, religion, culture and homeland, we are teaching our children to forge their link in the chain of Jewish tradition. Through this, they remain an important member of our Jewish community.
Chanukah is a time of joy and simcha. As we light the candles, we recite a short paragraph which states that we “look at the candles in order to express thanks and praise to G-d, for His wonders and miracles”. We celebrate this unique festival with communal lightings and with song and dance. This teaches us the importance of celebrating our achievements. Learning (and teaching) are not simple tasks. They require time and effort. However, we also need to acknowledge and reward our achievements as well. In the special prayer, Al HaNissim, added into the Amidah and the benching, after we eat, we read “they established these eight days of Chanukah to express thanks and praise”. So too, do we have to thank those who teach us and offer them praise in celebration of our academic achievements, no matter how big or small.
As already stated, Chanukah is related to the word Chinuch, education. The story of Chanukah teaches us how important it is to continue the learning journey. Learning never stops. Even after we finish school, we continue. In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Ben Bag Bag states “Turn it and turn it (study it in detail) for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and grey doing so”. While Ben Bag Bag was referring to Jewish learning, the desire to continue learning should remain just as bright as the Chanukah candles. In the same way we keep our Chanukah flames lit by protecting them from the elements, so too, we need to nourish and protect our children’s need to love and cherish their learning.
Finally, Chanukah only lasts eight days. Once Chanukah has concluded, we remove the wax from the bench-tops, forget about all the doughnuts we consumed, and we pack away the chanukiyot ready for the following year. While this may seem disappointing, we know that Chanukah will be celebrated again next year, and again the following year. Chanukah reminds us that we need to make the most of all the opportunities we are fortunate to experience. We have eight days to celebrate Chanukah after which, the doughnuts disappear, and the flames are extinguished. We are reminded that if we did not make the most of our year, this year, we have another shot, next year. If this Chanukah was good, we need to make next year’s Chanukah even better. This is the approach we need to adopt prior to the new year. Chanukah teaches us not to look only back, but also, and primarily, forward, to a year of renewal and new beginnings.
Wishing you and your families Chag Chanukah Sameach.
About the author
Ronnen Grauman is the Acting Head of Jewish Life and Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.