The First Candle: Looking Forward or Looking Backward?

There was an argument about lighting the Hanukkah candles between two famous Sages: HIllel and Shammai.  The holiday of Hanukkah was shaped on the holiday of Sukkot. During Sukkot, we offered 70 sacrifices for all the nations of the world.  We started with 70 the first day and offered a few less every day of the holiday. Because we started with a number that symbolized the totality of holiness, Shammai argued that Hanukkah should also start by lighting 8 candles the first night and reducing each night by 1.  That way we honour our past and maintain the impact of holiness into the world. Hillel argued that we should understand our past but always look forward in time and increase holiness in the world.  

Do we use our past to inspire our future (Hillel) or do we use our past to shape our future (Shammai)?  Both present compelling arguments.  

Hillel’s argument carried the day.  We begin with 1 candle and increase candles every night.  

Hanukkah inspires us to elevate ourselves as we move forward.

The Lemon, The Bush, The Hut…and The Neighbours

Hi everyone,

Another Yom Kippur has come and gone and now we have barely 2 minutes to catch our breath before Sukkot is here.

Someone asked me once why Jews walk around with a lemon and a bush for a week in the Fall.  Here are the possible answers:

  • Because the Torah told us to
  • Most of us aren’t really sure
  • We do?
  • Wait until I tell you about the huts we build

And then the answers would also include:

  • it’s not a lemon, it’s a citron, the source of citrus fruits
  • It’s not a bush, it’s the branches of different trees bound together
  • We hold them together to symbolize all Jews
  • We hold them together to symbolize male and female
  • It is a celebration of unity and inclusion
  • We expand our dialogue with God by including the wondrous objects in creation

But building the Sukkah, that’s a whole other symbol.

I remember as a little girl, I would lie in my bed late at night and listen to our neighbour hammering in his yard long after dark.  He worked during the day, so he could only build his sukkah at night. I thought it was strange and a bit scary. Now, I think it’s one of the most beautiful expressions of meaningful choices.

The Torah tells us that we followed God in the wilderness, living in temporary dwellings, expressing ultimate trust.  The prophets refer to it as if we were newlyweds finding our foundation. God refers to it as a sweet and cherished Divine memory.  And so we build our huts, our Sukkot, year after year. It is a place that reminds us of a time when God and Israel struggled to learn of each other, but loved each other with the freshness of new love.

It’s such a beautiful concept…if you live in Israel where it’s warm.  Here, in Canada, Sukkot has always felt cold, wet and uncomfortable. It’s how I imagine it must have felt in the shtetls of Eastern Europe for centuries.  In the Torah it was an expression of our security with God in the wilderness, but in the shtetl it made Jews vulnerable to the elements and to hostile neighbours – and yet we continued to build our Sukkot.

The beauty of Judaism is that meaning not only renews, it layers.  I can listen to someone building a Sukkah and think of ancient Israel and God forging a relationship that will change everything forever.  I can also look at the Sukkah and realize how flimsy a shelter it provides. And in today’s world, I sit in a Sukkah and have a fleeting glimpse of what a homeless person in Canada must endure night after night.

All these meanings speak at once, they are all relevant.  And, of course, Sukkot is a harvest festival which coincides with Thanksgiving in Canada this year.

My brother and his family once lived on a street with mostly observant Jews.  It was a lovely cul de sac with a sense of community on the street. One year, an older Asian couple, recent immigrants, moved onto the street around Rosh Hashanah.  By Sukkot, every neighbour was inviting the new couple to be guests in their Sukkah and so this elder Asian couple spent 8 days eating in a Sukkah at every meal. The following year, the Asian couple built their own Sukkah.  It appears they thought it was a Canadian tradition to mark Thanksgiving. Someone explained to them that it was a Jewish ritual. They decided that the expression of community and caring for the stranger was so strong, that year after year they have built their own Sukkah and invite guests to meals for 8 days.

Sometimes these things work out so right.

Chag same’ach, have a wonderful Sukkot!