Lighting up the Darkness

Is there even daylight in December? There are times when it feels like the sun barely rises before it sets again. Darkness can be beautiful in the countryside, when one can look up and see stars dotting every inch of sky. In the cities where so many of us live, it can feel oppressive, pushing us indoors earlier and earlier, pulling us away from summer’s socializing in favor of warm pajamas and cups of cocoa and early bedtimes.

It is usually during December, only weeks away from winter’s shortest days, that we begin the Jewish festival of lights: Hanukkah. This holiday celebrates a victory 2000 years old, when Judah the Maccabee led a small band of guerilla fighters to reclaim the Temple from those who had desecrated it. When the Maccabees sought to rededicate the Temple with oil, they found only one small cask– enough to light the temple menorah for a single day. Then, a great miracle happened. The oil lasted for eight nights. Now, every year, when winter grows its darkest, we light it up.

We put menorahs in our windows, and we kindle candles, one for each night of the miraculous oil, and a ninth to light the others. Oil splatters the walls of kitchens around the Jewish world as we fry up delicacies like latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (jelly-filled donuts), and burmelos (honey-topped fritters). We gather round tables heaped with heavy foods, and we gather round our menorahs and their flames, family and friends together, and we sing the blessings, and we celebrate.

But are we really celebrating the oil? Don’t get me wrong– I love latkes as much as the next person– but it seems to me that the festival of lights is about much more than the Maccabean Miracle. It’s about bringing light. It’s about impossible tenacity. And yes, cliche and all, I’ll say it: it’s about hope.

After all, our holy works are full of miracles. Water from rocks, prophets ascending to the heavens on chariots, Jericho’s walls crumbling on account of some horns. With these many miracles at our canonical disposal, does it really make sense to mark an 8-day festival for a 2000-year-old jug of oil?

I would argue that what we are really celebrating is not the oil. I would argue that Hanukkah’s sticking point–what makes Jews the world over, even those who don’t identify as religious, kindle the flames– is the act of bringing light to dark times and places.

There are many people and causes in our world that need light, from families of the ever-growing number of victims of gun violence in the United States, to refugees without anywhere to call home or a path forward to making a new one, to systemic racism in more contexts than can be counted. Even looking at a list like this, noting three of the world’s struggles, can fill my heart with despair. And there are so many more struggles, known and unknown.

We do not live in a day and age, if one ever existed, where we can count upon divinely-inspired miracles to eliminate the wrongs around us. We cannot solve the world’s ills in eight days. What we can do is shine lights into places that need it, and remind ourselves of our power to keep the light going, just like the oil kept the menorah going so long ago.

So as the sun sets every evening during this year’s Hanukkah, I will celebrate the miracle of eight days of oil in the time of the Maccabees. I will celebrate the brightening of today’s longest winter nights. I will celebrate the tradition of impossible light that has lasted 2000 years and that will, I pray, fill our souls with the strength to continue to light up the world.  

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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