Chanukah and a hurricane help us see what’s truly important

As I write this, I am reflecting on the devastating emails I have just finished reading. The emails are from a Google group comprised of friends that attended yeshiva and college with me approximately 20 years ago.

I had fallen behind in reading the correspondence, and I sat down and started catching up with the last few weeks of material. My mouth fell open as I read the chronicle of the advance of Hurricane Sandy.

The narratives progress from the onset of strong winds, to loss of power, water in the basement, and floodwaters rising to the first floor. They are accompanied by pictures and videos my friends filmed with their smart phones.

One friend described fleeing with his wife and four children, carrying kids on their shoulders as they waded through waist-deep water and sewage to neighbors on higher ground.

Another friend’s house and family business were completely destroyed by the flooding. Everything had to be thrown out. As he put it, “My entire life is now on my front yard waiting for bulk garbage.”

I read of how my friends are dealing with destroyed cars, electrical fires, long lines for gas, power outages, and insurance snafus.

And yet, each of them in turn expressed thanks that their families are all right, knowing that there were others who were not so fortunate.

My friends’ ability to focus on the things that they were thankful for made me think about a message we can learn from the coming holiday of Chanukah, which begins on the evening of Dec. 8.

 
Blessings and miracles

The Shulchan Aruch, (written by Rabbi Yosef Karo, 1488-1575) in Orach Chaim 683, states that on Chanukah we complete the Hallel prayer, meaning we say a full Hallel.

The rule, as stated in the Talmud in Arachin 10b, is that one says the full Hallel prayer on a holiday on which a new mussaf offering is brought in the Temple. Therefore, on the last two days of Passover, when no new mussaf offering is brought, we say the “half” Hallel and skip two of the paragraphs.

In synagogue life, the difference is barely noticeable, as the two paragraphs that are skipped, lo lanu and viahavti, are rarely sung out loud. But why do we say the full Hallel on Chanukah? There is no additional mussaf offering on Chanukah. Therefore, one would think that we should only recite “half” Hallel.

The Mishna Berurah (written by R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, 1838-1933) and the Bach (R. Yoel Sirkes (1561-1640) (Orach Chaim 683:1) quote one of the several reasons offered by Rabbi Yosef Karo for reciting a full Hallel on Chanukah — that on each day of the holiday it was as if there was a new miracle.

With the dawn of each new day in the Beis HaMikdash, the Holy Temple, the miracle of the oil continuing to burn was appreciated anew. We say the complete Hallel on all of the days of Chanukah to commemorate the miraculous nature of each and every day.

Chanukah teaches us to appreciate the miraculous in our lives. The Jews could have chalked up their victory in the war against the Seleucid Empire to their superior guerilla warfare tactics.

Instead, the fact that oil continued to burn for seven extra days taught them to recognize the miraculous nature of everything that had occurred and to praise God for it.

It behooves us on Chanukah to take stock of all the wonderful things in our lives, all the big and little miracles that are constantly being renewed, and to appreciate them and thank God for them.

When we pause to consider everything that the victims of Hurricane Sandy endured, we have a newfound appreciation for our food, clothes, heat, electricity, and shelter.

The events of the past few weeks also help us to re-evaluate what is truly important in our lives. I thought that Rabbi Hershel Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere, N.Y., aptly expressed this sentiment in an email that he sent out to his congregants the day after Sandy hit.

The rabbi and his wife lost their cars and many books, photo albums, family videos, and other items that were in their basement and first floor. But he said, “In our family we have a slogan about material losses: ‘It is only money.’”

My friends and many people who were hit hard voiced similar feelings.

During this time of year, when many people focus on giving and getting things, may Hurricane Sandy, Chanukah, and the complete Hallel help us to recognize, appreciate, and take advantage of the blessings and miracles that are all around us.

Happy Chanukah.

Rabbi Wes Kalmar is spiritual leader of Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah.