Chanukah: A Light in the Darkest Time

Why did they wait to call it a miracle?

Both Adam and our Sages waited a year to celebrate the miracle of light.

Table for Five: Chanukah Edition

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

A miracle occurred and they lit [the menorah from the single, undefiled cruse of oil] for eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings. -Shabbos 21b, B. Talmud

Ari Segal, Head of School, Shalhevet High School

This has been a dark (secular) year, one of serious strife and challenge. I’ve always looked forward to Chanukah as a literal light in the darkness, but this year, I needed a spiritual angle assuring me of an end to these dark times.

I found it in an observation of Rabbi David Fohrman’s, who points out two unrelated Talmudic texts with notable parallels in their wording. One is the pasuk above. The other, in Tractate Avodah Zarah 8a, seems to have nothing to do with Chanukah at all.

This Gemara tells us that Adam HaRishon believed that the shortening days of the first solstice signaled the death of the world, a consequence of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Terrified, Adam fasted and prayed for eight days, hoping to save the world.

When the days lengthened again, Adam celebrated this natural miracle for an additional eight days. The next year, the Gemara says, “He instituted both these and these days as holidays.” Those words are the exact same formula as our Gemara — the only other place where the same phrase appears.

This can’t be a coincidence. In each instance, both Adam and the Jewish people celebrate the miracle of the light — physical and spiritual — which returned just when it seemed to be gone forever.

These Gemaras promise the same for us. Our current darkness is painful, but it is also natural and finite. The world will cycle back into light. It’s going to be okay.

Yehudit Garmaise, Journalist

After lighting our menorahs, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn reminded us to linger awhile, gaze at the candles, and allow their messages to engrave themselves on our hearts.

“We must listen carefully to what the candles’ lights are saying,” the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe said. One thing the candles can teach us is the Baal Shem Tov expectations that we strive to be “warm Jews” -the highest compliment.

Like candles, we should always ask ourselves whether we are emitting warmth, respect, and positivity to our loved ones, our friends, and the members of our community.

The candles’ light is bright and cheerful, but, we might notice, also small and quiet: not getting too much in other people’s space. Candlelight does not overwhelm, but substantially enhances every environment. The environment the candles create affirms our aspirations to create cozy, comforting, and safe homes that are full of love, Yiddishkeit, encouragement, affirmation, and good humor.

The candles also can remind us to daven, learn Torah, and perform mitzvahs with concentration, enthusiasm, and joy.

When we gaze at the candles, we can also consider what is it that makes them burn. For the Maccabees, the candles’ fuel was the pure oil that reflected their neshamas, as they stayed true to Hashem.

Finally, some say that the powerful flickering flames from which we cannot avert our gaze suggest the Next World: where Hashem stores the holy and beautiful light that He created on the first day of Creation, but then put away for the future.

Rabbi Nathan Halevy, Kahal Joseph Congregation

The name ‘Chanukah’ comes from ‘The Chinuch’ (reinauguration) of the temple after it had been defiled by the Greeks. It was a perilous period of our history. Israel had been spiritually oppressed by Antiochus and the Greeks.

Many Jews, seeking security, began assimilating into Greek culture. The Chanukah miracles were a tremendous spark of hope for Israel. Hashem brought salvation in the darkest of times. This experience reinforced the spirit of Israel, showing them that there is always hope, no matter how dire the circumstances. Israel reached a new level of spiritual service in a most challenging time.

The nation demonstrated tremendous self-sacrifice in so many ways, rising to the task of standing up to a mighty adversary. This service elicited a spiritual response from Hashem bringing about their salvation. This strengthened the bond of Hashem and Israel for eternity.

The sages foresaw the influence Chanukah had on the future of our nation. It became embedded into the story of Israel. As stated regarding all special holidays, “Vehayamim Haelu nizkarim venaasim-these days are remembered and celebrated.” By our celebration of holidays, their spiritual influences and energies are drawn down in a renewed and stronger measure. Our world contains light and darkness. At times the darkness seems so strong that there is no light that can illuminate it. Chanukah reminds us that no matter how strong the darkness may appear to be, we are always connected to Hashem, the most powerful light in existence who is the source of all.

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, VP of Community Engagement, Board of Rabbis of Southern California

One day’s oil lasted for eight days…

As Election Day stretched into multiple days of waiting for results, Trevor Noah described the delay as “like a Hanukkah miracle no one wanted.” Indeed, things lasting longer than expected doesn’t feel particularly miraculous nowadays. Surely, the pandemic is continuing much longer than we hoped. This terrifying period of societal and political uncertainty stretches out indefinitely as a Groundhog Day on repeat.

So, what does the miracle of Hanukkah mean this year?

Perhaps, this year, the miracle of Hanukkah is that we haven’t run out of strength. How many times this year have we felt that we were out of steam and couldn’t go on? How many times have we felt that we are at the end of our rope? Patience has been even more hard to come by than toilet paper! But somehow, we get up each morning and keep going.

If someone told you a year ago that you would accomplish and endure everything you have this year, would you have believed them? As Rabbi Jack Riemer wrote, one lesson of this pandemic is “that you are smarter and that you are more innovative than you thought you were.”

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, wrote, the lesson of Hanukkah is captured in the phrase, “Od Lo Avda tikvateinu,” our hope is not extinguished. This Hanukkah, may we realize that we are actually more capable and have more stamina and faith than we think. That’s the Hanukkah miracle everyone wants.

Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, Assistant Rabbi, Temple Beth Am

Why the next year? If in that moment the miracle was known to us, why wait a year to declare the days celebrated and distinct or holy? When we experience a miracle, do we know that it is happening in the moment or do we need perspective away from the event to celebrate the greatness?

In Berakhot 54a, our rabbis describe various expressions of gratitude and blessing regarding wondrous events. Our sages say “on a miracle performed on behalf of many people, everyone is obligated to say a blessing; a miracle performed for an individual, only the individual says a blessing.” The Chanukah miracle, though encountered by relatively few, benefitted the many. We’ve grown to value bringing light to darkness, and the distinction of each. The original Chanukah miracle was for its own sake. The repeating, resounding miracle, declared the following year, is each generation’s annual rededication.

Our Sages knew that in order to institute these days as the holiday of Chanukah, each person needed to experience light growing in their home, recite a story of triumph and miracle, and recognize how important it is to their own story. May we continue to share our light into the world and experience moments of joy and strength, in the darkness of our lives, as miracles waiting to be blessed. Next year we will recognize that something this year was a miracle!

With thanks to Ari Segal, Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, Yehudit Garmaise, Rabbi Nathan Halevy, and Rabbi Rebecca Schatz

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Read more at the Jewish Journal.

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