Is there anything left to be said about Chanukah that hasn't already been flooded with presents, chocolate replicas of once prized Chanukah gelt, real coins that Jews of a certain age still remember? Is there anything left to say about Chanukah after all the decorations and the public artistic renderings of dreidels, menorahs, candles, and the like? Thank God for Christmas! Where would Chanukah be without it?
And yet, at the core of Chanukah, in the simplest, most normal way, lies the flicker of an idea so plain, so common, that it seems to go unnoticed. It is possibly even boring. The rabbis in the Talmud tell us the mitzvah of Chanukah is nerish u'veito—an additional candle each night for a person and his or her household. That is the mitzvah. That is the beginning and end, and complete fulfillment and celebration of Chanukah. In each Jewish home, each Jewish family should light the menorah, one new candle each night. It doesn't get any simpler than that—three words in Hebrew. Try and get through Pesach with one three word instruction!
What's going on here? The story of Chanukah begins at a huge, public, international event. In the most public of all places—the Temple in Jerusalem—the Seleucids, Greeks, installed an idol of a Greek god in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. There were many things that we Jews did that drove the Greeks crazy. They couldn't understand our not eating pork. It made them crazy. We didn't work on Shabbat. What's that all about?! And circumcision, well, what's to understand about that? But what really drove them to distraction is that we serve God who cannot be seen. It was like we were engaged in some great secret mysterious cult. They couldn't see our God. So after they installed an idol in the Holy of Holies we revolted. It was a long guerrilla war that lasted from 168 to 164 BCE. We beat back an international empire. That is really big stuff. And what mitzvah did the rabbis give us to commemorate this? Not a military parade; not a holiday with a major synagogue service that would attract huge numbers of Jews otherwise preoccupied. The rabbis presented a mitzvah and its expression in the simplest way—each home, each family, one new Chanukah candle each night.
Very often, in order to understand a statement of the rabbis in the Talmud, we have to take a look at the text in TaNaKh and see if there is a similar phrase. Only once in the Torah do we have the phrase 'ish u'veito'—each person and his or her household.
These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, ish u'veito, each coming with his household: (Sh'mot 1:1)
At the beginning of Israel's dwelling in Egypt, the family of Jacob, his 12 sons, and their children and grandchildren, come down to Egypt. This family grows to be a great nation. In the beginning, they came down ish u'veito, each one and his household. That is all. The national birth story of the Jewish people begins with ish u'veito—each person and their immediate family. The history of the Jewish people remains ish u'veito—each person and his or her family. Our greatest national celebration, which is Passover, takes place ish u'veito—each person and his or her Jewish family commemorating the seder. The nation consists of ish u'veito—each person and their family. It is not the reverse. It is not that the nation has lots of families. It is that ish u'veito, each family, is what builds to and makes up the nation. We are a nation of families. This means that our greatest national moments are celebrated family by family. This great national moment of Chanukah, when we commemorate purifying the Temple from the Greek idolatry, and throwing off the sovereignty of the Seleucids, is celebrated ish u'veito—one person, one family, one child. So go home, and with your family light just one new candle each night. That is all. And you will have touched eternity.