How precious are the lights of Hanukkah

The worlds of halachah, Jewish law, and hashkafah, Jewish philosophy, are generally perceived as two independent courses of study: the studying of halachah being the dry, detailed examination of legal texts, and the study of hashkafah being the edifying investigation into the beliefs and perspectives of the Torah. In reality, though, the Torah, in all of its many branches, is a unified living organism, each course of study part of a bigger, interconnected web. Personally, I derive great satisfaction when I discover or learn of examples of the interconnectedness of halachah and hashkafah. I’d like to share with you two marvelous examples of this sort below that happen to share a common, instructive theme.
One of the most well-known mitzvot in the Torah is the Biblical command to recite the Shema morning and night. Less known to the masses is the halachah (the law) that dictates that these daily recitations must be recited during precise blocks of times in the day and in the night. Recite the Shema before or after these blocks of time and you unfortunately lose out on the opportunity to fulfill this sacred task.
So, where do these precise guidelines come from? The Mishnah derives them from the Shema itself. “Teach them thoroughly to your children and speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you arise” (Devarim 6:7). “When you lie down” is interpreted broadly as including the entire nighttime, for people lie down and sleep throughout the entirety of the night (Berachot 1:1). “When you arise,” on the other hand, is limitedly understood as only including the first three hours of the day, as these are the times that people generally wake up — the early risers waking up at the crack of dawn and the royal princes contentedly napping in their beds until the third hour of the day (ibid. 1:2).
Although I must have learned these mishnayot dozens of times over the years, it was only recently that I found myself perplexed by the Mishnah’s scriptural deductions. You see, the connective language of the verse “when you lie down and when you arise” implies a grouping together of these two halachically significant phrases. You would assume, then, that the time allotment for the morning Shema and the evening Shema would be parallel to each other as well. And, yet, as we have seen above, that is decidedly not the case, the nighttime Shema being alotted a whopping nine extra hours of precious time!
What, I wondered, was the deeper significance in this unusual time variance? I searched and searched for sources that might address this issue, but to no avail. Like so many times before, I turned to Rabbi Sharon Cohen, a colleague of mine and a scholar known for his knowledge of the more mystical elements of the Torah for an answer.
Rabbi Cohen voiced his appreciation for my question, one he had never heard before, and just as quickly launched into an interpretation of his own. He explained that the nighttime represents the parts of our lives when God’s presence feels hidden, when darkness and confusion reign and when faith is acquired with great difficulty. The daytime represents the polar opposite, the points in our life when we most clearly feel God’s presence and when faith comes to us with incredible ease.
The nature of this physical world, Rabbi Cohen explained, is that the “dark” periods of confusion and doubt will always greatly outnumber the “sunny” stretches of clarity and enlightenment. The time allotments for the Shema, our eternal expression of commitment to faith and service of God, mirror this earthly reality and illustrate that we will need to serve God through many long nights during the course of our existence, if only to anticipate brief periods of soulful enlightenment and spiritual clarity.
Just as the day has its daytime and its nighttime, so too does the year. The sunny months of the spring and summer are as the daytime, whereas the colder, darker months of fall and winter represent the nighttime. You’ll notice that all of the Biblical holidays fall out during the six-month stretch of spring and summer. This is because the period of Biblical times was a time of great enlightenment, when God’s hand was made visible in both nature and history through the many open miracles of the Ten Plagues, the Exodus and the Jewish people’s travels throughout the wilderness. The rabbinic holidays (Hanukkah and Purim), on the other hand, fall during the dark, cold months of fall and winter. This is because both the Hanukkah and Purim stories occurred during times of great darkness and peril for the Jewish people. In both instances the Jewish people wondered if God had abandoned them in the post-Biblical Exile, only to leave them at the mercy of other nations who bid them harm.
The miraculous salvations that materialized during the Hanukkah and Purim stories revealed to the Jewish people then, as it still does for each and every subsequent Jewish generation, that God is still with us, that He had never left our side. It should come as no surprise to us that unlike the seasonal Biblical commandments of shofar and the four species which must be performed during the day, the mitzvah of the Hanukkah lights must be done specifically at night.
(The Pesach Seder, another seasonal Biblical command, is, in fact, performed at night, but that is because the night of the Exodus shone with the light of day from the revelation of the Shechina, God’s essence. Upon Seder night, the commentators apply the verse from Tehillim (139:12), “layla kayom ya’ir,” “The night will be as bright as day.”)
The lights of Hanukkah, then, serve as much-needed torches for the many “nights” of our life, bringing even the darkest moments of our life into the light, replacing doubt with faith and confusion with clarity. How precious are the lights of Hanukkah!
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the co-director of DATA of Plano.

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