A Chanukah Meditation: Money To Burn

This article originally appeared in the Winter 1996 issue of Jewish Action

There is a price tag affixed to the Jewish legal principle of mitzvah enhancement. This principle, known in Talmudic expression as hiddur mitzvah, obligates the dedicated Jew to spend more money than minimally necessary, to buy a better matzah, a nicer tallit, a prettier etrog.  Yet, this fiscal exuberance has limits.  Only one-third more than minimum need be expended for this purpose (Talmud Baba Kama 9a,b).

In this context, customary Jewish behavior on the festival of Chanukah seems unbalanced.  After all, the letter of the mitzvah calls for a single candle nightly per family.  In our eagerness to enhance this mitzvah, we have initiated a custom (Talmud Shabbat 21b) whereby each member of the household lights each night, beginning with one candle the first night and escalating until eight candles on the eighth night.  Scholars have pondered the reasoning behind this custom which shatters the rules of mitzvah enhancement, causing us to spend far more than the basic requirement.

In approaching this matter, my mind wanders to a mysterious anecdote described in the Talmud (Sukkah 52b).  A young Jewish woman, intermarried to a Greek sergeant, entered the sanctuary when the Greek conquest began.  Striking the altar with her shoe, she cries “Lukus, Lukus (“wolf” in Greek, variation of Lupus), how long will you go on depleting the money of Jews, without standing up for them in their hour of need?”  Students of the Talmud will immediately discern that if this incident was singled out to be preserved for posterity, it is to be mined for a deeper understanding of the heart of the conflict between the ancient Greeks and the Jewish people.

It seems clear that this rebel’s cry is directed at the passage in Genesis (49:27): “Benjamin is a wolf who preys, in the morning he consumes treasure and in the evening he dispenses booty.”  This is explained by the classic commentators as a reference to the altar of the Holy Temple (built in the tribe of Benjamin’s share of the Land of Israel), which “takes” people’s money in expensive offerings but repays them at some later date by bringing a blessing into their lives.

Clearly, then, her plaint is that the altar fails to deliver.  It is a wolf that consumes treasure but does not dispense booty.  It depletes the money of Jews, without standing up for them in their hour of need.  She sees the investment, but she does not see the payoff.

If asked to describe the three components prerequisite for nationhood, we would identify them as: a sufficient territory, a common currency and a shared language.  In the mundane view of life, these are value-neutral; they are of the realm of the physical, the material, the natural.  Only Judaism defines these as holy.  These defining and binding elements are denoted by Jews as the “Holy Land” (traditional phrase “sanctity of the land” is a talmudic, legal phrase), the “holy tongue” (talmudic, legal phrase) and, finally in the scriptural phrase (Exodus 30:13), the “holy currency.”

The Greek materialist will go to war, will fight to the death, to affirm the world view of a self-contained natural system.  This Jewish idea that sanctity can be imported into this world from a higher place, that the commonplace activities of living can be elevated by a spiritual focus, that the essential factors of national life can be invested with holiness, is anathema to the Greek model of existence.

And so it is that the Greeks are the first of our conquerors who, instead of driving us from our land, allow us to remain there, but use law and brute force as a means to corrupt our culture.  They can tolerate our land, even our title to it, but they will not tolerate the “holy land.”  Simultaneously, they mount an offensive against the holiness of our tongue, by such measures as forcing Jewish leaders to translate the Scriptures into Greek (Talmud Megillah).  We may use our language, they insist, if we assign to it a value interchangeable with others, if we cease clinging to our quaint notion of a “holy tongue.”

So, too, the prodigal daughter, assimilated and acculturated into the culture of naturalism and materialism, returns to deprecate the idea of “holy money.”  She sees money being funneled into the altar, into Jewish education, into synagogues and communal organizations, but she is lacking criteria by which to measure the profits.  Benefits in spirituality, in sanctity, in knowledge of God, in closeness to God, are not the sorts of profit that she is equipped to assess.

“Holy money” can produce Torah and service of God and mitzvah.  It can engender values of kindness, justice and truth.  What might not always be included in the goodies that the “wolf” distributes at the end of the day is cold, hard cash.  And for our wayward sister, wed to the uniform — to image, to style, to power, to comfort, to rank — and to her pretty shoes, no other profit counts.

In commemoration and confirmation of our penultimate victory, and in anticipation of and preparation for our ultimate victory, we eschew all financial restraint in enhancing the mitzvah of Chanukah candles.  We gladly invest money without limit to expand the light of holiness.

Yes, in the area of financial commitment specifically, and national self-definition generally, the moment of Chanukah issues a call to our deepest reserves of dedication to the higher values.  As we shuck off, day by day, the sense of irrelevance and futility as a nation that has engulfed us over two millennia of dispersion, our Chanukah oils shine more brightly, more clearly — and enlighten every corner of the world.

Rabbi Homnick is the author of several volumes of Talmudic commentary as well as Prayer of Love, a collection of essays on Jewish subjects.  

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