Hanukkah celebrates religious maximalism. We increase the number of lights each night to show that we will not just make do with the bare minimum of one light per night. In doing this, we remember the miracle of the oil, where the Jews at the time sought out pure oil, although impure oil would have sufficed under the circumstances.
This was the fight of the Hasmoneans – to not accept a compromised religion and tradition, but to fight to protect our faith and serve God maximally.
And yet there is a danger in an unrestrained approach to one’s religion. It can become zealotry. It can impose impossible standards on others and oneself and can express itself in the rejection of everything outside of the religion as evil at worst, and as worthless at best.
The religious excelling that we are to emulate is one that makes the world a better place, lightening our heaviness and bringing light into the darkness. This excelling is a passion which engages those around us, welcoming them to look at and appreciate the warmth and the glow that our faith brings.
Beit Shammai saw things differently. He saw the larger world as dangerous, something not to engage, but to protect oneself against. Any light that comes into the world will likely, due to the harmful forces around us, diminish over time, going from eight, to seven, and eventually to one. For him, all our effort has to be placed in preserving that one candle, in rejecting the larger world to protect our flame from going out.
We reject Beit Shammai’s perspective and embrace the approach of Beit Hillel, each day increasing the candles and increasing the light in the world.
Beit Shammai would – metaphorically speaking – have us place our candles behind high walls so that our faith may be cloistered and protected. But as we know, the place for our candles it not behind a wall, but in the window and – originally – outside the door. In the window its light can shine and spread, and its position outside the door welcomes us to cross the threshold of our sheltered surroundings, encounter the world, and see and be enlightened by the lights of others as well.
This approach to religious maximalism is true at all times, but all the more so now, as – with a vaccine soon to begin to be distributed – we prepare to exit our protective homes and reengage that larger world. This world will be a changed one, and such change can provoke anxiety, anxiety that might push us back into our old and familiar ways. But it can also be a catalyst for creativity, opening opportunities for us to bring the radiance of the Torah into the world in new and inspiring ways, to help us all exit the darkness and draw closer to a time when the light of God fills the world.