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Ta Shema: December 2, 2022

Hanukkah, The Second Neilah

On Yom Kippur, we spend the day contemplating.

What was the past year for me?

What does the future hold?

Will I ever have the chance to live to my fullest potential?

The day culminates in the Neilah prayer. During Neilah, we imagine the gates closing as we ramp up our final prayers. The hope is that all of our prayers can break their way through before the gates close for the year.

But the gates never truly close, at least not until Hanukkah.

The gates remain open through Shemini Atzeret, when we pray for rain in its proper time in Israel. We ask for God to send rain:

"To be for a blessing and not a curse.

For life and not for death.

For abundance not for famine."

In other words, as the gates of prayer remain open through the end of the High Holiday season, we pray for quality of life and not only to live.

While the High Holidays have been over for a while now, the gates of prayer, the gates of repentance, remain open still, if only a crack. And as Leonard Cohen wrote, There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in. In this case, the light of the fully lit Menorah on the 8th day of Hanukkah.

The Maccabees were too busy fighting for their religious freedom during the holiday of Sukkot, so when they won and rededicated the Temple, they celebrated a makeup festival. According to Hasidic views, the eight days of Hanukkah parallel the seven plus one day of Sukkot, and the eighth day of Hanukkah therefore parallels Shemini Atzeret. Hanukkah, therefore, was the holiday that allowed the Jews to press the giant reset button, to begin again, on their religious lives.

The eight days of Hanukkah allowed for the Maccabees to reinstate three important mitzvot through the eight day long celebration of this festival:

1) The celebration of Shabbat,

2) The Celebration of the new month of Tevet,

3) Brit Milah (if a baby were to be born on the first day of Hanukkah they would have a brit ceremony on the eighth.

But the eighth day of Hanukkah itself has special meaning–it is our second Neilah. 

According to hasidic thought, when God created light it was a pure, primal light that would have been hard on our simple human eyes.  This pure, primal light filled the world for only 36 hours in the fully created world before God hid it away–twelve hours from the creation of Adam until Shabbat, and the 24 hours of Shabbat. On Hanukkah, not including the Shamash (helper candle) we light 36 candles. These 36 candles represent those 36 hours, the most sanctified time of creation when God’s presence was felt most poignantly. On the eighth night, we light that 36th candle. During those few hours on the eighth night of Hanukkah as the candles are burning, the gates of prayer swing wide open. It is a private time when we are connected to the Divine. 

What I learn from this is that it is never really too late to find meaning and connection. It is never too late to try again. Open your heart to the possibilities of what could be if you try again. Be creative and persistent. If you open the door a crack, that is how the light, the pure, primal light, gets it.

Happy Early Hanukkah. I hope to see you at many of our Hanukkah celebrations over the next month. May it be a joyous festival of lights, as well as a time of quiet contemplation.


Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Chaya Bender

Tue, June 18 2024 12 Sivan 5784