Appreciating the Little Things –
Candle by Candle
Rabbi Ahuva Zaches - Congregation Or Ami
A few years ago, I was teaching a Hebrew School class about Chanukah and a famous debate between two ancient Jewish sages named Hillel and Shammai. Hillel taught that we should start Chanukah by lighting one candle and adding another candle each night of the holiday. Shammai taught the opposite: start by lighting all eight candles on the first night, and then take away one candle each subsequent night. The Talmud offers multiple explanations for either increasing or decreasing the number of candles each night, but ultimately Hillel’s method became the norm for Jewish communities around the world.
I asked my Hebrew School students which method made the most sense to them: increasing or decreasing the number of candles each night? One student said the decreasing method was most like the oil in the story of Chanukah because each day it burned, there was a little bit less oil left. Another student said the increasing method reflected the Jews’ happiness, which increased each day the miracle continued.
Then a third student raised her hand to ask, “Isn’t the point of the candles to remind us about the oil lasting for eight days? If we are supposed to remember that miracle each night of Chanukah, why don’t we light all eight candles every night of Chanukah?”
I had thought a great deal about the merits of both Hillel and Shammai’s opinions, but never considered the compromise of neither increasing nor decreasing the number of candles. So we did a thought experiment: Imagine if we were to light all eight candles each night of Chanukah. The first night would be beautiful and inspiring. The second night would be equally beautiful, but perhaps a little less exciting because we had already seen the same sight quite recently. Thanks to a psychological phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation, we would become desensitized to the beauty of all eight lights and less impressed by the miracle of Chanukah if we saw all eight lights illuminated each and every night.
Hillel and Shammai were onto something by suggesting the need for incremental change. The small changes help us to not only avoid the trap of hedonic adaptation, but also to appreciate the spiritual and emotional journey of our ancestors, who had to wait each day to see if the miracle was going to continue. As we light the Chanukiyah this year, candle by candle, may our incremental approach remind us to appreciate the little things and to never take any of the miracles in this world for granted. And let us say: Amein.