With the last days of Chanukah behind us, it is a good time to look at some of the timeless lessons that can last until next year.
Of all the commandments, lighting Chanukah candles is the only mitzvah that needs to be performed for the public. The menorah needs to be lit by a window or a doorway where people passing by can see it. Any other commandment can be fulfilled privately. A sukkah, for example, can be built in a gated courtyard — there’s no obligation for people passing by to see your sukkah. But when it comes to Chanukkah, the mitzvah is to publicize the miracle.
The time to light the menorah is as it gets dark. This teaches us that the theme of Chanukah is about reaching out beyond the boundaries of our homes or synagogues and spreading holiness and G-dliness throughout the world by adding the light of studying the Torah and fulfilling mitzvot.
There’s something special about light. Light doesn’t actively fight darkness, it’s existence naturally eliminates it. Chanukah teaches us to focus on the good that’s in us and on the good that is in others — to focus on the mitzvot we can do, and to do them better and with more joy. That will bring light into our own lives and into the world around us.
Little known fact: On the three biblical holidays (Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot) it’s a mitzvah for the head of the household to purchase gifts for the members of his household so that the holiday becomes a joyous time for all. Chanukah is not a biblical holiday and therefore there’s no mitzvah to give gifts. However, it is customary to give children (even adult children) “Chanukah gelt.”
The meaning of “gelt” in Yiddish is money. This ties into the theme of Chanukah, which is turning darkness into light. Money is something neutral, but when we take that money and do a mitzvah with it, we are turning it into a source of light. Chanukah is the time for us to teach our children the value of money and the value of making giving part of their day-to-day life.
It’s always nice to get presents, but when a child gets a present, he can either give it all away or keep all of it. It’s hard to find a middle ground. When a child gets money, though, he can learn to develop a healthy attitude toward giving charity by having the opportunity to give from his own money. It’s just as important for a child to have a tzedakah box as it is for a child to have an Xbox!
A few years ago on a Friday afternoon, an Israeli exchange student at West Virginia University named Shay walked into the Chabad house and asked for the tzedakah box. Shay and I came from very different backgrounds. I grew up in a Chasidic home in Brooklyn. My first language was Yiddish. Shay grew up in central Israel, and his parents were not observant. I asked Shay what inspired him to donate. Shay explained that on his way to class, he found a $20 bill and he needed to put it in the tzedakah box.
While occasionally we received donations in larger amounts, this was one of the most valuable donations we ever received.
While we grew up worlds apart, Shay and I shared the same core values. There are so many things a college student can buy with $20, but this was a testament to Shay’s core values, and there is only one way to teach those values: by being a living example. PJC
Rabbi Zalman Gurevitz is the rabbi at the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center in Morgantown, West Virginia. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.