When I was growing up, Chanukah was literally a “festival of MANY lights!” As the oldest of six children, my parents gave each one of us our own chanukiyah. (Note: A menorah is any multi-branched candelabra. A chanukiyah is a menorah specifically designated for Chanukah. It has nine candle holders: one for each of the eight nights of Chanukah, plus one for the “shammash” – the helper candle that is used to light the other candles).
Every morning during Chanukah, each of us would carefully choose which color candles we were going to light that night. My mother placed a table in front of one of our living room windows with all of the chanukiyot (plural form of Chanukiyah) circled strategically around. The mitvah – the commandment – of Chanukah is to publicize the miracle. Hence the directive to light the candles in a window. My siblings and I loved watching all those candles burn and glow!
I have a collection of many beautiful and unique chanukiyot now. But the one I still use every year on Chanukah is the one I used growing up, the one I inherited from my mother. It is not beautiful, but it takes me back to my childhood, it reminds me of my mother and helps make me feel as if she is part of my Chanukah celebration, even though she is no longer alive. That feeling helps the flame of my candles glow even more brightly.
It is no accident that Chanukah, our festival of lights, occurs during December. These are some of the darkest days/nights of the year: we are approaching our winter solstice. Once again, Chanukah reminds us that during the darkest time of the year, we human beings have the power to kindle lights against the darkness. We have the power to brighten the lives of others.
Let me suggest that we can make the flames of our own Chanukah candles burn even more brightly by dedicating at least one of the nights of our own Chanukah celebration to a family tzedakah project instead of giving gifts to each other. The word tzedakah comes from the root tzedek – which means “justice” and “righteousness”. We don’t simply give tzedakah because it makes us feel good, but rather out of our sense of responsibility to God and to taking care of others in the world around us.
There are a number of different provisions for tzedakah outlined in the Torah, all further clarified by the rabbis in the Talmud. They all center around one basic principle: no matter what form our tzedakah takes, we must make sure that we never compromise anyone’s dignity, honour or self-respect. In fact, the highest form of tzedakah is when we can help someone to help themselves, so that they will no longer be dependent upon the help of others.
Tzedakah is not something that is limited to one night of the year. Perhaps you can use this opportunity as a family to figure out a family tzedakah project that will be meaningful for your family to participate in all year long. This is something that both parents and children can research, donate time and funds to, educate others about, spend a little time at the Shabbat dinner table reflecting on and do some type of culminating event at the end of the year. (It is customary to donate tzedakah every Shabbat right before Shabbat begins). I think you will find that no matter what project you and/or your family choose, this year-long involvement will not only make your Chanukah candles glow more brightly for others, but enable them to glow all year long for you as well.
Chag Urim Sameach! May you have a Happy Festival of Lights!
Click here for some links for helpful Chanukah resources: