I pause from the weekly cycle of Torah readings and take note of the procession of the seasons and of the holidays: we have reached Chanukah, the Festival of Lights.
Part of the genius of the Jewish Holidays is that they resonate on many levels of experience. As we travel through the Jewish year, the progression of the holidays takes us on a journey through the seasons, a journey through sacred Jewish history, and a journey of our own souls through the stages of life. Thus, our personal journeys and the journey of the Jewish people are reflected in the seasons and cycles of nature. There is no single correct interpretation of each holy day; multiple interpretations layer together, the most personal understanding of the meaning of the holiday weaving together with the most cosmic. This depth gives our holidays their remarkable staying power and their continued freshness.
Chanukah is no exception. The holiday focuses on the symbol of the small light that banishes the darkness, and then speaks to us about the natural world, about Jewish history and the Jewish People, and about the spiritual journey that every human travels.
The Jewish calendar is a lunar-solar hybrid, calibrated to both the cycles of the moon and of the sun. Chanukah is timed to fall every year on the moonless nights closest to the winter solstice. That is, Chanukah falls on the absolutely longest, darkest nights of the year. And so we light little lamps or candles, filling our homes with light to dispel the darkness. We increase the lights every night, our display growing brighter through the holiday. Chanukah is timed to be our Festival of Lights, cheering us in the darkness and calling the sun back from its winter retreat.
This dark time is ideal for remembering a dark time in Jewish history, a time when Judaism was truly threatened with extinction. And so we tell the story of the Maccabees, the hopelessly outnumbered band of Jewish fighters who miraculously reclaimed Jewish independence against the empire of Antiochus Epiphanes. We link the miracle of Chanukah with their unlikely feat: as the Maccabees attempted to reconsecrate the Temple in Jerusalem they were able to find only one small and insufficient cruse of oil to relight the eternal flame that was kept in the great menorah of the Temple. Yet the small pitcher of oil was sufficient for eight days. So it is with the Jewish People’s miraculous and continuing presence in the human family. How could it be that we are still here, lighting our lights? Victims of so much repression and hate, shouldn’t we Jews have been extinguished long ago? This meaning too is contained in the light of Chanukah; the Maccabees used whatever they had to keep the light of Judaism alive, even though it appeared that there was not enough oil to sustain us. We must have faith and light the light of Judaism in every generation, and trust that the light will endure.
What is true about the collective Jewish journey through history is also true about each individual journey through life. Every one of us at some time encounters a dark moment or a dark season in our lives, a time when we see no light at the end of the tunnel. Every one of us at some time feels despair that the small light we possess can never possibly be enough to guide us to wholeness or to heal the hurts of the world. Chanukah reminds us to kindle our light no matter what, and that even though it seems impossible, that light will be enough. Chanukah reminds us that when we join our small light with the light of others, together we can dispel the darkness. Chanukah reminds us to have faith that there is more strength and fuel within then we know. Chanukah reminds us that the sun will return and the spring will come, in our world and in the garden of our souls.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach – a Joyous Festival of Lights,