Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin once pointed out that the Gemara has a strange formulation in addressing the essence of Hannukah. The Gemara asks mai Chanuka, or what is Hannukah? This question seems particularly strange because the Gemara does not ask a similar question with regard to any of the other holidays. The Gemara does not ask "what is Purim?" or "what is Pesach?" The Gemara only seems to ask, "what is Hannukah?" Does the Gemara not know why we celebrate this holiday? That seems unlikely. What, then, is the Gemara trying to ascertain? Rav Meir Shapiro suggests that the Gemara is not asking why we celebrate this holiday, but the Gemara is instead asking why is Hannukah the name chosen for this holiday? The central themes of this holiday are the military victory and the miracle of lights, and on the surface, this name seems connected to neither.
Rav Meir Shapiro provides a number of suggestions to explain how, in fact, the name “Hannukah” does connect to the holiday. One explanation is that “Hannukah” is related to the word chinuch, which has two meanings, education and dedication. On each day of Hanukkah, we reaffirm our power to stand up to our enemies through the light of Torah and mitzvoth with a sense of excitement each day we study Torah and observe a mitzvah similar to the excitement our ancestors felt when they rededicated the Mikdash during this holiday. By educating ourselves and our families in the words of the Torah with this feeling of excitement, we strengthen ourselves against the outside influences that surround us and rededicate ourselves to our faith each day.
The basic mitzvah of Hannukah is to have one light per household. Today, many of us express our excitement for the holiday by keeping the mitzvah in an enhanced way, lighting one flame for each member of the family. According to the Rambam, this means that there should be one light for the father, one light for the mother and one light for each child. However, R. Shlomo Luria writes that the husband and wife should share one light. R. Luria explains that according to the Eliya Rabba, ishto k’gufo - when one person lights the menorah, this person is lighting it for his spouse, as well. But why? Why do we apply this principle of ishto k’gufo only with respect to lighting the menorah? Can a wife say to her husband, “I’m too tired to go to shul to hear the Megillah reading, so please go and fulfill the mitzvah for me?” Obviously not!
To answer this question, we must think about what each light symbolizes. In his work, Or Gedalyahu, Rav Gedalya Schorr writes that whereas the aron that housed the luchot represents the Written Torah, the menorah symbolizes the Oral Torah. In this way, the menorah symbolizes man's potential for creativity and collaboration with our halachic system. Through the oral Torah, man has an opportunity to create, by applying halachic principles to everyday life. In this way, the light of the menorah represents what each one of us contributes to the continuity of Torah. When we kindle one light per house, we celebrate the commitment of our family to the halachic process and our desire to contribute to the furtherance of the destiny of our people. When we enhance the mitzvah by kindling one light per person, we celebrate what each one of us personally commits to the future of Judaism.
Each one of us has our own vision, our own unique piece, which we can add to further the destiny of our people. Perhaps according to the Eliya Rabba the goal of a married couple is to have only one light, to fuse their individual visions into a single light, or a singular vision for their family. But every child must have his or her own light, because each child must be taught to become an independent thinker and to develop his or her own new, unique path in Torah Judaism.
When it comes to Chinuch, we must constantly engage in Chanukah, in dedication, in creating newness, freshness and excitement, in new perspectives to reinvigorate our beautiful religion.
Thousands of years ago, our Rabbis created a holiday to share with us the secret to stand up to the challenges around us that threaten our extinction. The secret is Chinuch, or Chanukah. The secret is education, and to educate with excitement. The secret of our strength and continual transmission is to find ways to make our everyday routines deep and meaningful with each passing day, and alive and new with each generation.
If we look at our religion simply as a checklist of do’s and don’ts, then we are doomed to failure. We must look at our religion as a deep, meaningful, reflective, and engaging experience to connect ancient teachings and observances to our daily life with new and exciting perspectives, with our own unique light. When we do that, then we will have answered the question that the Gemara asked, Mai Chanukah?