10 Minutes of Torah -  Jewish Ethics
  December 3, 2004
Week 54, Day 5
20 Kislev 5765 

Light the Candle of Righteousness on Chanukah
by Becca Fuchs

"Many candles can be kindled from one candle without diminishing it."
-Midrash Rabbah 15:19

Our lives light up during Chanukah. Perhaps our joy at this season is because of the chanukiyah lights that we kindle, the shiny blue, white, and silver wrapping paper that adorns the gifts we exchange, or the feel of triumph when our dreidels land on the letter gimel. Maybe we feel so happy during this time because we think about the success of the Maccabees, or because jelly doughnuts, latkes, and gelt are all so delectable. Yet for most of us, it is the joy of giving that brings the greatest pleasure. The tradition of giving on Chanukah has deep roots and can be traced to the custom of giving gelt as a reward for studying Torah. Tractate Shabbat of Talmud requires poor people who do not have enough money for Chanukah candles to knock on doors until they collect sufficient funds. The custom of giving gelt at Chanukah thus helped poor people purchase the candles that they needed to properly observe the holiday.

During Chanukah we rejoice in the miracle that a small amount of oil lasted for eight days. We recognize God's power in creating miracles and protecting our people, as demonstrated by our recitation of the second Chanukah blessing, "Blessed are You, Eternal, our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in days of old, at this season." While we express our gratitude for God's marvels, we also learn at this season that we are obligated to act in the world as well. The popular Chanukah song "Mi Yemalel-Who Can Retell" includes the lyrics, "But now all Israel must as one arise, redeem itself through deed and sacrifice." This message can motivate individuals to contribute to society and help make miracles happen in today's world.

On Chanukah it is important not only to bask in the light and joy of our celebrations, but also to bring light to the lives of others and do good deeds during this holiday that has become known for giving. In Parashat Miketz, which is read during Chanukah this year, a severe famine swept over Egypt and the rest of the world. Through good fortune, Joseph ended up in a position of wealth and power, and was put in a situation where he could help others. Having been a slave, Joseph was familiar with what it was like to be at the mercy of others, and he carried this knowledge with him despite his newfound wealth. When Joseph's brothers traveled to Egypt to procure food, Joseph filled their bags with food without accepting their money, taking responsibility for those less fortunate. Joseph was able to help his family members when they came to him in a time of need.

Throughout the world, even where there are no famines, many people are hungry and poor. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in September 2003, that one in ten American families live in poverty. A United Jewish Communities Report, also published in September 2003, indicated that in America, one in twenty Jews live in households that are below the poverty line, and 12% of Jewish children live below the poverty line. Just as Joseph's good fortune allowed him to help his family during a time of need, we should use our good fortune as a basis for reaching out on Chanukah to those members of our extended family who can use our help.

The word Chanukah means "dedication." It is a time during which the Maccabees rededicated the temple in Jerusalem, and a time during which we can rededicate ourselves to helping others. We know that others could benefit from our assistance, but we occasionally forget them in the hustle bustle of our own lives. Chanukah provides us with an opportunity to revitalize our passion for helping others and to rededicate ourselves to this noble mission. Children often receive gifts on each night of Chanukah, and it is during this time of abundance that we should remember to teach them that there are other less fortunate people in the world. By focusing on those who are less fortunate than us, we can help prevent consumerism from overshadowing the true meaning of the holiday.

Ner Shel Tzedakah ("candle of righteousness") is a project in which families, individuals, and congregations devote the 6th night of Chanukah to learning about the problem of poverty. They donate the value of the gifts (or the gifts themselves) that they would otherwise exchange on that night to organizations that assist the poor. Deciding what will be donated and where these donations will be sent can be fun aspects of fulfilling this mitzvah. Congregations, religious schools, and youth groups can also engage in Ner Shel Tzedakah by participating in a number of activities, such as: clothing drives, mitzvah malls, and partnerships with local organizations to purchase gifts for selected individuals. This year, the 6th night of Chanukah falls on Sunday, December 12th. For a camera-ready flyer and additional program ideas for Ner Shel Tzedakah, visit the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism's website.

When you make donations to organizations that assist the poor on the 6th night of Chanukah, you can recite this blessing:

Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Haolam, Asher Kidshanu B'mitzvotav, V'lamdeinu L'hadlik Ner Shel Tzedakah.

Blessed are You, Eternal, our God, who makes us holy through the performance of Mitzvot, and inspires us to light the Candle of Righteousness.

As we light this Ner Shel Tzedakah tonight, we pray that its light will shine into the dark corners of our world, bringing relief to those suffering from the indignity and pain that accompany poverty. Just as one candle lights another, may our act of giving inspire others to join with us in the fight against the scourge of hunger, homelessness, need and want. Together, let us raise our voices to cry out for justice, and may that clarion call burst through the night's silence and declare that change must come.

On the 6th night of Chanukah, we have the potential to add brightness to the lives of others. Just as many candles can be lit from a single flame without diminishing it, by engaging in the Ner Shel Tzedakah project to assist the poor, we add meaning to Chanukah without taking away from our own festive celebration. Keep the candle of righteousness burning bright for those in need. As Peter Yarrow wrote, "And light one candle for those who are suffering. Don't let the light go out. It's lasted for so many years."

Becca Fuchs is a Legislative Assistant for the Commission on Social Action of the Union for Reform Judaism.

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