The mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah Menorah – one of the most universally observed mitzvot – features an unusual aspect that invites explanation. The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) records a hierarchical list of different ways of fulfilling the mitzvah that represent varied levels of preference and desirability. The basic level requires that one light one candle each night of Chanukah for the entire household. The next level is that one light one candle each night for every person in his household. One who does so is considered to be a member of the elite group entitled the “Mihadrin.” Rashi (1040 – 1105) interprets the word to mean “seekers.” Mihadrin are those that proactively look for opportunities to do good. The highest level is that one light one candle the first day, then on each subsequent night lights the same amount as last night plus one more. One that fulfills this level is considered “Mihadrin min hamihadrin,” which literally means “the seekers among seekers” – he is outstanding even among those that proactively do good. Essentially, this mitzvah can be done in a basic way, a better way, and an ideal way. What is unusual is that these three defined levels of mitzvah fulfillment cannot be found regarding any other mitzvah. Generally, there is only one way to do the mitzvah, and it is either fulfilled or not fulfilled. Why are these unique levels part of the mitzvah of Menorah?
The explanation of this anomaly of varied levels of fulfillment within the same mitzvah may be directly related to the nature of the Chanukah miracle which was all about rising above expectations. Generally speaking, there are times that a Jew must surrender his life in martyrdom rather than relinquish his beliefs. If, however, it is possible to go into hiding to avoid the threat to life and maintain those beliefs, then martyrdom is not necessary. The Midrashic literature (Shir Hashirm Rabbah 7:13) makes a significant addition to this rule. If a person that can avoid the threat wants to nevertheless face it instead for the sake of demonstrating one’s commitment to the Almighty, it is permitted to do so (and it is therefore not considered a reckless and suicidal act). The Hasmoneans could have stayed in hiding and waited for the Hellenist persecution to subside. Instead, they opted to stand up for their beliefs and revolt against the oppressor. Rabbi Issac Sher (1875 -1952), Mussarite and Dean of the legendary Slabodka yeshiva first in Europe then later in Israel, suggests that it was obvious to them, however, that they were no match against the enemy armies and there was not even a slim chance of their military success and victory, and they had no way of knowing that they would be granted miraculous Divine assistance. According to this perspective, their decision to take up arms and enter a battle that was in reality a suicide mission was actually an act of voluntary martyrdom. The fact that they did far beyond what was required of them, and were “Mihadrin min hamihadrin,” writes R. Sher, led the Almighty to respond in kind and go above and beyond the rules of nature and hand them the miraculous military victory. This, perhaps, is what led the Rabbinic Sages to furnish the mitzvah of the Menorah with its unique levels of fulfillment. The inclusion of the more optimal levels of lighting – the mihadrin and mihadrin min hamihadrin – celebrates the devotion of the Hasmoneans. It serves as a reminder of the importance of rising above mediocrity and defeatism and excelling, instead, in proactively living with idealism and excellence.