Rabbi’s Reflection: Bringing the Light of Hanukkah to 5782, a “Shmita” Year

headshot of Rabbi Sue Shankman

The days have grown shorter, and many of us find ourselves rising in the dark, and often returning home at the end of the day as the darkness approaches all too rapidly. As we move towards the season of darkness, Judaism provides a way to mark this time of year, in all the wisdom of our ancient sages, with a festival that brings light to the darkness. Our festival of Hanukkah is a reminder not only of the power of light, but of the power of commitment and dedication. The word Hanukkah means dedication, and originates in the rededication of the Temple when the Hasmonean dynasty (the Maccabees) reclaimed Jerusalem and the Temple from the Seleucid Greek army.

The rabbis of the Talmud debated how we should observe Hanukkah, and specifically, the ritual of kindling the lights. Rabbi Shammai suggested that we should light all the candles on the first night and then diminish the light with each night by decreasing the number of candles. Rabbi Hillel took the opposite stance (no surprise there—these two frequently disagreed), declaring that we should begin with one and add a flame each night, thereby increasing the light and announcing the miracle.

It is so very powerful to light that single candle on the first night and then watch the light increase throughout the holiday until all eight flames (and the shammash) are kindled. That image reminds us of the power of one single light to illuminate that which may not otherwise be seen. 

Light brings power and energy and recalls the days of creation. We read in the very beginning of the Torah that God created the world with light. Judaism also teaches that we are God’s partners in the ongoing work of creation. An important aspect of that sacred partnership is caring for our fellow human beings while also caring for the planet we share.

Every seven years, we come to an interlude, a special year known as the shmita, meaning release. Passages in the Torah (Exodus 23:10-11, Leviticus 25:3-6) describe the shmita as a year in which justice is restored: debts are to be forgiven, slaves are to be set free, and the land is allowed to rest— nothing is planted or harvested. During shmita, the produce of the fields are considered communal property and could be gleaned by anyone.  

This year, 5782, is a shmita year. 

Traditionally, shmita was viewed as a vehicle through which we could once again achieve the wholeness of Gan Eden—the Garden of Eden when human beings lived in harmony with the earth, and both benefited from the symbiotic nature of the relationship. Everything was in balance. From the moment Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden, we human beings have been striving to return to it, return to the beginning—to that moment—when there was enough food for all, the land belonged to all, and there was equality for all. 

We approach shmita today from a slightly different perspective. For some, it is an opportunity to express care for the earth, as we are not tied to the land in the same way our ancestors were. In recent years, the Israeli government has used shmita to support those in need of economic support and assistance.

The concept of shmita carries an even greater relevance this year for Washington Hebrew Congregation, both individually and communally. We can perceive it much in the same way as our ancestors did, as an opportunity to take a step back and reflect on the work of the previous years and as a means of reorienting ourselves for the future. We will take time this year to think about the ways in which we engage with our synagogue community. Are there services, programs, or activities that spark your interest? What might kindle greater engagement and involvement and enhance the light of Judaism for you and those you love?

This year we invite you to join us as we shape our future, beyond the next shmita in seven years. As we head into our 170th year, we hope that you will join us in planning our future with excitement, creativity, intentionality, and joy. Together we will illuminate our Congregation and embrace our community with our dedication to inclusion, education, and spirituality.