Voices from the field

Playing for Time

By Shalom Orzach

There is a well known Talmudic passage in Tractate Shabbat (21b) which relates to Chanukkah. After expounding the technical details of when, how and where to light our chanukkiah, the Rabbis then famously ask "מאי חנוכה" ("What is Chanukkah"?)

The Chanukkah conundrum is one of education. Curiously, the Hebrew word for “education” (chinuch, חינוך) is concealed in the word “Chanukkah” (חנוכה). Perhaps we need to shed light on it in order to see it! One of the foundational precepts informing our educational approach was perhaps captured on the eve of Sinai where we counterintuitively committed “to do and then listen” (נעשה ונשמע). Education happens through experience. Our experiences both inform and prescribe our understandings and deeper insights.

In his prelude to the second edition of the Aleph Bet of Israel Education (published by the iCenter), Parker J Palmer says, “Truth is often thought to reside in the conclusions we reach in conversations. But surely that cannot be right... they really reside in the conversations themselves.” I believe this is the implication of the Talmudic dictum used in describing the discussions between the Schools of Thought of Shammai and Hillel (Talmud Eiruvin 13b): “Both are the living words of God” "אילו ואילו דברי אלוקים חיים". Truth does not imply right or wrong, it implies purity of thought that is Godly. 

The celebration of Chanukkah by its very essence (and name) must therefore be educative, and consequently thrives in multiplicity of insights. Ultimately, a set of behaviors to actuate the events are decided not so much for conformity as for community.

All education – and chiefly for our purposes, Israel education – is propelled by both these definitive educative experiences. The recounting of the Chanukkah narrative and the laws and customs adopted, ought to thrive in the conversations, in the ability to ground our approaches in truths, in the capacity to live in the timely and yet be conversant in the timeless. 

In exploring the fitting way in which the chanukkiah is to be lit, the approaches of Hillel and Shammai in playing for time both reflect the specific events and at the same time ground them beyond that particular episode. We become transported through a sophisticated associative process, enabling us to re-engage with fateful moments of our history concurrently relating to concepts of holiness and spirituality. The elusiveness of these ideas compel us to find ways of actualizing or seeing them. Shammai and Hillel – the ultimate educators leading Schools of Thought – deliberate how best to realize these concepts. This Chanukkah, remember – we are not just counting time but making time count.