Lighting candles on Hanukkah is easy enough that anyone can participate.
"…because these holidays were brought about by Israel's own deeds, every Jewish soul can be restored through them.
Every single Jew can find a way of belonging and attachment to them."
-Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger
Hanukkah is an easy holiday to keep in Jewish terms. It's fun and happy; it celebrates a divine miracle and a military victory, and it demands very little of us in terms of participation. The only commandment of Hanukkah is the lighting of a menorah nightly (no, it is not an actual mitzvah to eat donuts), a mitzvah that does not take much time or effort. The ease of the holiday should help people recognize that their participation really matters. Why? Usually only that which demands a lot of us offers the rewards of holiness.
Shabbat and Hanukkah
Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, or the Sfat Emet (Language of Truth) (1847-1905) gives us an insight into the answer in his commentary. He mentions that his grandfather taught him an important lesson about people from a law recorded about Shabbat and Hanukkah.
There is a Talmudic discussion of what wicks and oils qualify for use on these two holidays. Because of the time constraint in lighting Shabbat candles, we are advised not to use just any oil since some are less effective than others. Such oils can, however, be used on Hanukkah. Rabbi Yehudah Leib's grandfather taught him that although not everyone participates in Shabbat observance, everyone can join in to Hanukkah lighting.
Unlike Shabbat, Hanukkah is not a holiday written about in the Bible. It was generated by human gumption and hard work, coupled with God's gift of a jug of oil that lasted for eight days. Rabbi Yehudah Leib says that Purim and Hanukkah "are special times that Israel merited by their own deeds" which demonstrates that people are "capable of creating new sacred times by their deeds." As such, it should be easy for people to relate to the mitzvah of Hanukkah and feel a sense of belonging with the Jewish community.
Professor Arthur Green, who wrote a commentary on Rabbi Yehudah Leib's commentary, describes this insight in the following way:
No One is Inadequate
Every Jewish soul is kosher enough to be a candle in God's menorah! This is our holiday, one that became sanctified only because of our actions, not by original divine intent. For this sort of holiday no one needs to feel inadequate or insufficiently holy to participate.
And yet, even though it is relatively easy to participate in lighting Hanukkah candles, not everyone does. Not everyone experiences this sense of holiness because they don't feel part of our community. Communicating a sense of belonging is not something that we always do well outside of our immediate circle of friends. We know that in most Jewish communities across America, fewer than half of the Jewish population in any given area affiliates with a Jewish institution.
That doesn't mean that Jews all over do not feel Jewish. But belonging is a highly emotional sort of attachment. You either feel it or you don't. Why is it that so many Jews don't feel like they belong to the Jewish community? Perhaps we need to be more welcoming. Maybe we're not working hard enough to create the emotional web of attachments, not reaching outside of our normal boundaries to welcome others in to a richer, more meaningful Jewish life.
Imagine a global Jewish people where everyone felt himself or herself to be "a candle in God's menorah." What a Jewish community we would be! Hanukkah is a great time to ask ourselves what we're doing to spread the light of belonging. What are you doing?