Chanukah and Modernity

By Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar

It was December of 1988 and the streets, stores and houses were decorated and illuminated with red, green and white bulbs of all shapes and sizes proclaiming with brilliant gusto that Yuletide was arriving. The world was ablaze with flashing, dancing and sculptured lights covering trees, lamp poles, evergreens, gardens, buildings and every available space where seasonal lamps could be placed, telling everyone in the Morse code of light that the world was celebrating Christmas.

In the midst of this dazzling color and giant decorated trees and fountains stood a single 14-foot Menorah lit just hours before by a group of Jews who were celebrating Chanukah. Erected on the center grassy plaza between the Bal Harbour shops and the Bal Harbour Sheraton Hotel, the eight lights and their ninth server light could almost be lost, fueled by natural oil and wicks that were overwhelmed by the massive megawatts powering all the other lights. “We are so indistinct and insignificant,” a young person said to me. “Look at the power of the rest of the world and their celebration in comparison to our meek light being silently almost nullified relative to the other lights.”
As I thought to respond in a way that would not diminish our Chanukah, the entire street suddenly became stark black and dark. There was an electrical outage/blackout caused by a transformer’s malfunction. All the lights in the street, shops, homes and everywhere ceased to function. It was an eerie and stunning moment. I suddenly looked up, and there was our 14-foot Menorah with its blazing, Holy flames dancing in the wind, illuminating the space all around it.
Hashem had sent me the answer. The glitz and sparkle of synthetic light was temporary and extinguished as they experienced malfunctions while the natural holy lights of authenticity continue to glow. Our Shul, which was born on Chanukah 1981, in a simple, modest, abandoned shoe store in the shopping arcade of the Beau Rivage Hotel, today stands as an international beacon of Jewish light and pride.

Chanukah, the holiday most enjoyed by children and adults with gifts, parties, lights and prayers, sends a message of the miracle of Jewish eternity and continuity.

Close to 2,200 years have elapsed from the first time Chanukah was established by the Hashmoneans in 165 BCE. The world was a completely different place than it is today. Communication, information, travel, population habitats, science, comfort and medicine are but some of the areas that have advanced exponentially in an incredible manner. In the scheme of history it was a seemingly minor event relating to a single canister of oil, enough to fuel the Holy Temple’s Candelabra (Menorah) for one day, that had escaped from being spiritually defiled and contaminated by the Greek/Syrian occupying army that was discovered and miraculously lasted for eight days (until a new, pure batch could be manufactured and brought to Jerusalem).

There were multiple miracles, wonders and salvations highlighted by the miraculous victory of the few, amateur, weaker and pure Maccabees over the multitudes of Antiochus’ well trained and powerful army. Yet it was the modest miracle of the Chanukah lights that is the center point of this historic Holiday. Light represents awareness, knowledge, enlightenment, warmth, holiness, goodness and clarity, negating and even transforming darkness, representing negativity, evil, intolerance, ignorance and bigotry.

At times, the seeming brightness of light can be construed with false enlightenment and self-serving rationality that can be mistaken for advancement and modernity.

Our society has experienced such darkness dressed and camouflaged in the cloak of bright and dazzling light. The need for society to qualify aberrational behavior in our personal lives and actions has transformed that which was clearly immoral and unethical (or at least amoral) to totally acceptable lifestyles and social behavior.

Whether in areas of modesty in dress and language or alternative lifestyle and living arrangements or fundamental moral issues–i.e., Kevorkianism and care of the chronically ill and elderly or generational respect for parents and grandparents–we have transformed former darkness to light.

Chanukah stresses and teaches that we must never abandon the original concept of light. Light must be pure, holy and absolute without relativism or compromise. As we kindle our personal and communal Chanukah lamps let us look into the eternal flame that proclaims with simplicity, humility and Holy light that our standard of light and truth will always be. Even when the flashing lights of modernity dim or become extinguished, our lights will continue to illuminate, never to be diminished or forgotten.

The inner, essential sparks of our Jewishness which always reside in the recesses of our hearts and souls, are waiting to be ignited to light up the world with G-d’s Holy light as we fulfill our eternal mission to be “a light unto the nations.”