When we get to the 3d night, we can already feel a little bit of the candle-lighting routine. On this night, we may ask the question, is there an ultimate, binding purpose to the 44 Hanukkah candles, to all the candles we light in a Jewish year? Are we even allowed to ask such a question? Might we be accused of heresy? There are so many things going on in our Jewish day and calendar, maybe Judaism cannot be reduced or distilled to one binding purpose, mission, vision.
But business consultant Peter Drucker urges us to ask the question. “What is the purpose of your business?” Simon Sinek teaches, “People don’t buy what you do, but why you do it.” Why do we do all the Jewish stuff we do? Why the Hanukkah candles? Is there a lofty, compelling thread that binds it all together? And another business guru, Steven Covey, said this: “Begin with the end in mind.” In other words, beginning with the first candle lighting, have central in our mind the ultimate goal, the overarching mission that Hanukkah and Judaism place before us. Do not lose site of the mission by night #8. Our sense of purpose and mission is the WHY of Hanukkah and every Jewish holiday.
Rabbi Eliezer and Sanhedrin 97b anticipated these questions 1800 years ago. What is our purpose? What is the ‘why’ of Judaism and Jewish life? What does it mean to “begin [a Jewish day] with the end in mind. . .”?
I think that Rabbi Eliezer understood. Every Jewish moment should be linked to our capacity for teshuva. In every Jewish moment, teshuva is our greatest power source. For us Jews, teshuva is like nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion brings two tiny atoms/particles together and thereby generates great energy, abundant clean energy. Teshuva is the founding clean energy movement. We Jews have had the technology for more than 2000 years – it is waiting for us to mine it, to extract it from deep within our souls.
Infuse each and every act from the outset with that overarching sense of purpose and mission. דע לפני שאתה עומד. “Da lifnei mi atah omed.” Before we begin to pray, “know before whom we stand.” And also, שויתי ה״ לנגדי תמיד, “Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid,” I place G-d before me always, at every moment.” But let’s be clear – to stand before the Holy One of Blessing requires teshuva. It’s like a matter of science, none of is authentically standing before God, if our being is not filled with teshuva. To stand before God requires us, at all times, to be actively engaging with and sharing teshuva. It’s like a fixed, long-known fact of science.
Drucker, Covey and Sinek whisper to us a profound Jewish question. Is our ultimate goal, is the ‘why’ of Jewish life: “love of God, love of Torah, or, our love of the people Israel”? Remember what the Zohar says: קודשא בריך הוא ואורייתא וישראל חד הוא. הקב״ה התורה וישראל אחד. “HaKadosh Barukh Hu (God), Torah and Israel – are one.”
Distilling Judaism, our unbelievably rich and beautiful tradition, down to one idea is extraordinary. Love of God, love of Torah, love of Israel are our three ‘whys’, woven into one. We begin every Jewish act with the end in mind: love of God, Torah and Israel. The Talmud, in Makkot, takes us on a journey from TaRYaG, 613 mitzvot, down to 11, to 10, to 6, 5, 3, and then the prophet Habakkuk distills them all to 1. That is what Rabbi Eliezer does for Jewish life in 97b. Teshuva, the holy, cosmic energy that fuses people together, is the necessary ingredient for every moment of Jewish life.
But which is it – love of God, Torah or Israel? Even if they are one does one of them stand out beyond the other two? Sadly, it’s not always the case that a purported love of Torah, or of God, produces a love of Israel, of one’ s fellow Jews. Sadly, from the left and right, sometimes it’s the opposite. The Vilna Gaon made a very controversial claim 1000 years ago. Torah is “mayim chayim” – living waters. God’s word is like the rain that falls and the dew that sits atop the grass. Water (Torah) helps life to grow. It nourishes, enables the flourishing of life. But, said Vilna Gaon, just as water feeds beautiful flowers, it also enables sharp, dangerous weeds, poisonous vegetation, and destructive vines to flourish as well. We must be inordinately careful that the passionate Torah we teach and learn produces a love of Israel, a unity within the Jewish people, like no people in history has ever seen or known.
A purported love of God or Torah that divides us – that’s like nuclear fission. It has terrible power to destroy. Nuclear fusion, however, brings the atoms/individuals together. Fusion creates enormous clean energy – that’s teshuva.
Rabbi Eliezer and 97b knew well the insights of Covey, Sinek and Drucker, long before they were around. Yes, there must be a binding thread, an overarching goal to all we Jews are called to do. What is that end goal? Answer – the love of every Jew by every other. As Avraham Infeld so beautifully teaches, we seek not uniformity, but unity. Unity of the Jewish people is why we wrap tefillin, pray three (3) times each day and devote 8 days every year to lighting our Hanukkiot. Unity among our people, that is why we feed and clothe those less fortunate than us.
On Hanukkah, our collective unity is our shared, collective responsibility. Give the gift of teshuva. Give with humility, clarity and generosity. When we do, the glory and mystery and beauty of the Jewish people will radiate in every direction. It will shine so brightly that our redemption will be palpable.