D’var Torah for Strategic Plan Rollout Meeting 2/6/19
Congregation Shearith Israel
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Is anyone here familiar with the Talmudic debate between Hillel and Shammai about how to light Hanukkah candles? The school of Shammai believed that we should start off with eight candles on the first night and then take away one candle per night until we’re left with only one candle plus the shamash, the helper candle, on the last night, whereas the school of Hillel opined that we should start with one candle on the first night and gradually increase by adding a candle a night until we have eight candles plus the shamash on the eighth and final night.
Well, I think we know how that one worked out—as was the case with all but a handful of the several hundred Talmudic debates between Hillel and Shammai, with Hillel coming out on top. But how many of us know the reasoning behind Hillel’s position for the Hanukkah candlelighting? His explanation is “ma’alin ba-kodesh, v’ein moridin”—when it comes to matters of holiness, we only increase or ascend, we don’t decrease. In the hanukkiah-lighting context it certainly intuitively makes sense that it would be more impressive and climactic to build to the finale of the full hanukkiah with eight candles plus the shamash burning brightly to illustrate the miracle of the oil that our sages said should have lasted for only one day but instead lasted for eight. But in his explanation Hillel doesn’t focus on that logical rationale that would be specific to the hanukkiah; instead, he focuses on this general principle, that when we’re dealing with sacred matters we want to keep reaching higher.
We do see other examples of this principle in play in our tradition, like in the symbolic choreography of the kedusha in the Amidah when we go up on our tiptoes three times as we pronounce the words from the prophet Isaiah, “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Adonai Tzeva’ot; M’lo kol ha-aretz K’vodo”---“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts, the earth is full of God’s glory,” like in the scripting of 15 Psalms, Psalms 120-134, with the introductory words, “Shir Ha’Ma’alot," “A song of ascents,” linked by the early rabbis to the ascent up the 15 steps where the Levites sang on their way up to the Ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Perhaps most well-known to all of us here today is the use of the term “Aliyah,” “going up.” to refer to someone who chooses to move from the Diaspora to Israel to make their life there, thus making a spiritual ascent to a different kind of life in our Jewish homeland.
It is in this same spirit of sanctity and holiness that we decided to title our new Strategic Plan “Ma’alot," “Ascending New Heights.” During this last year and a half our Strategic Plan Chairs, along with our Committee, Foundation chairs members, Klei Kodesh and staff have invested hundreds of hours of thought and effort in helping us hone in on and sharpen our focus and priorities for this next chapter of our congregation’s history. In doing so we have emerged with a Strategic Plan that we think you will find to be worthy of its aspirational title. We hope this plan will challenge us to build on our successes and what we’re already doing well, strive to live up to our new mission, vision and values statements, and also serve our congregants’ needs even better. We’ve already been making steady progress in revitalizing our congregation in recent years, but there are new and different heights for us to climb still as we rise to meet the challenges and opportunities presented by the changing landscape of 21st century American Judaism.
We invite you to be our partners in this vital, and holy, effort as we push ourselves to be the type of Kehilla Kedosha, sacred community, we yearn for and are excited and energized to be a part of. Please click HERE if you are excited about our future and wish to help.
Todah Rabbah (Thank you!).
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share