The “miracle of Hanuka,” we are told, revolves around a cruse of oil containing a one-day supply that sufficed for eight days. It was an eight-day Mediterranean cruse. As it says in the Good Book, “oils well that ends well.” So what would have been so terrible if they ran out? Like, what if we ran out of herring at the qiddush?
Our people had just been through a drawn-out conflict with the greatest imperial power of the day, against the tyrant Antiochus — he’s nobody’s aunti — and many homes had been destroyed, many people killed, the Temple had been desecrated. In that context, how important could a mere cruse of oil be?
During Hanuka, we read the “Story of Yosef” in our annual Torah reading cycle.
Yosef was blessed. He had everything. He was a lucky guy. His mamma loved him, and his father loved him more than all his 24 brothers and sisters. He had a good job. His father gave him a beautiful, special coat, and God gave him premonitions — dreams — about how great he would be. Yosef was so lucky that he was nearly killed, got thrown in pit, sold into slavery, and put in prison in a foreign country with no parole.
So where did he go wrong? One way to look at it is that he was not considerate of the feelings of others, his brothers in particular. They were not favored, and they had to work hard. Yosef was totally insensitive to their feelings. He just didn’t get it.
It’s a miracle that everything worked out all right.
Speaking of miracles, let me say something more about Hanuka.
The central mitzva on Hanuka is the lighting of a Hanukia for the purpose of pirsuma nesa, of publicizing the miracle of Hanuka. It is important that each household light a Hanukia.
The performance of this mitzva is so important that the Shulhan Arukh, the sixteenth-century law code that serves as the common base for modern law, describes the obligation in this way:
One needs to take great care in lighting the Hanuka lights; even a poor person subsisting on charity pawns or sells their cloak and buys oil for lighting.
Shulhan Arukh O.H. 571
Lighting the Hanuka lights is so important that a poor person is instructed to take on additional hardship to do it. The Shulhan Arukh says the poor person ought to make whatever sacrfice is needed to fulfill this mitzva.
Everyone in our Congregation can afford Hanuka candles or oil. Lighting is very inexpensive in our country. But consider that for most of human history, most people could not afford fuel for lighting at night, and certainly not for merely ornamental purposes. When the sun went down, it got dark. That is the way that one-third of the people alive today live, as well. So imagine that getting oil or a candle was a significant expense.
There is a general commandment of hidur mitzva, of doing each religious act in the nicest way feasible. For the sake of hidur mitzva, we take a beautiful Hanukia (such as those available from the BEKI Sisterhood Giftshop), and use fine oil or lovely candles — you don’t want to use kerosene. Each member of the household has their own Hanukia, and each lights a number of lights corresponding to the number of the day of the holiday. We are fortunate that we are able to do this mitzva in such a complete and beautiful way.
But what of the poor person who can not afford all of this “hidur mitzva” but must struggle to light even one lamp? The Mishna Berura, written at the beginning of the twentieth century by the Hafetz Hayim, comments on the section of the Shulhan Arukh cited above:
If one has a limited supply of oil for all the eight days [of Hanuka] and one’s neighbor has none at all, one should light each night only one light and give some to that neighbor….
That is, we are told that we ought to meet the basic need of another person even at the expense of our own ability to fully perform the mitzva. This is to say nothing about helping others at the expense of our own pleasure, spiritual satisfaction, or bank account — we’re talking mitzva here.
Like the Biblical Yosef, if we flaunt — or simply enjoy — our material blessings while our brothers and sisters go without, we run the risk of being thrown in a pit. It may be a physical pit, or it may be a spiritual pit.
Many Americans are facing a relatively challenging fiscal climate. We are feeling that in Connecticut. Several of our officers are currently looking for work. Economic dislocation can be very difficult. But none of our BEKI families are facing hunger due to these conditions. The same cannot be said of our neighbors in the New Haven area.
Our state is facing a severe budget deficit. This is happening at a time when certain segments of our society were already suffering from a lack of support. There are families and children who are not able to receive the medical help or housing they need due to budget cutbacks.
In Connecticut, social activists are advocating a temporary state income tax surcharge of 1% on incomes exceeding $1 million per year as part of a plan to balance the state budget. That plan was rejected last year. That plan must now be brought back to the legislature for passage.
Last year (2001) the Federal government passed a “temporary” ten-year tax cut program. That was at a time when large budget surpluses were projected. Now they want to make those cuts permanent. This is at a time of huge projected deficits and hardship for many American families. Most of those tax cuts benefit the wealthiest one percent of Americans. Tax cuts for the wealthy are unconscionable at this time.
Our synagogue board members know how much I make, and you might not think of me as a wealthy man. But consider that the median household income in the United States was $42,228 (in 2001) (“representing a 2.2 percent decline in real income from its 2000 level”), and that a household with an income of $150,499 (or more) puts it in the top 5%. So I realize that I am at least in the top 10% of American households with respect to annual income. (Data: DeNavas-Walt, Carmen and Robert, Cleveland, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-218, Money Income in the United States: 2001, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2002.) Even more: On the global level, I am in the top 1%. So when I say that the rich should pay, I am including myself.
When we share our spiritual, financial and other blessings with others and consequently see their Hanuka lights — or their Holiday Candles — glowing in their windows, then we are truly fulfilling the mandate of Hanuka: Pirsuma Nesa, Proclaiming the Miracle.