Hanukkah: celebrating the promise of hope in dark times
Tonight marks the beginning of Hanukkah, that eight-day celebration when we bring light into the darkness by lighting the menorah each night.
The story of Hanukkah is retold and well known—the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) lead a revolt against the assimilationist forces of Antiochus and the Syrian-Greeks and emerge victorious. When they go to rededicate the ancient Temple—the most sacred site of the Jewish community—they find a small vial of sacred oil to light the Temple lamp (menorah), a light that was meant to burn continuously. As the story goes, there was enough to last for one day only, when lit however it burned for eight days. That provided enough time for new sacred olive oil to be produced.
There are a lot of complications with the story. The sides of the conflict were not clear cut, and it was in many ways an intra-Jewish battle between religious zealots and Greek sympathizers. The story of the oil and the story of the battle appear in different sources and are brought together later. The length of the holiday has as much to do with the 8-day Festival of Sukkot as much as the story of the oil. But told as it is, it provides a powerful narrative of the confluence of divine light and the light of the human spirit.
A question that ran through my mind recently is, what would have happened if they didn’t find any consecrated oil at all? If as tradition teaches, it took eight days to make consecrated oil, then would the Hasmoneans simply had to wait eight days before they could finish dedicating the Temple?
Presumably so. And yet, they did find the small vial, and then rather than wait until more oil was made, a condition in which they could have been assured of a constant flame, they decided to go ahead and light it anyway.
As I have shared in the past, perhaps the miracle of Hanukkah is not that a day’s worth of oil actually burned for eight days, but that the Hasmoneans recognized that they did not have enough, but decided to light it anyway. They knew in that moment that they could not do it all, but they decided to do what they could, hoping that it would be enough.
And that is another way to think about this holiday. The Hasmoneans knew they needed to move beyond the recent past of destruction and desecration. At the same time, they did not know what the future would hold. Thus the lighting of the small vial of oil is an act of being in the present, of doing what one can do right now, with the resources one has in the situation one finds themselves, without certainty about what comes next.
One can imagine each day watching this flame, not knowing whether that day was the day it would finally burn out. A precarious situation that reminds us that each day was a victory, each day a success, each day a step to celebrate.
Presumably on the ninth day, everything would have been back to normal. The lamp in the Temple would have been continuously lit, enough oil would be in store to keep it going, and the community would press on as it had before. The eight days of Hanukkah therefore celebrate the “in between”–the days between destruction and return to normalcy.
And by celebrating these days of “in between,” our tradition teaches that ultimately, they are not the “in between,” but simply, what is. Hanukkah teaches us to celebrate the here and now, the small victories won each day. We hope for a better future, but we also live each day as best we can, nurturing the flame that we have.
In these dark times, it sometimes feels that we can not generate enough light to sustain us. But we know we are never in complete darkness, there is always a small vial of oil, of promise, of hope, even if we don’t see it at first. And no matter what, when we find it, we light it, doing what we can in this moment, on this day, to bring about a new reality.
Chanukah is the Jewish eight-day, wintertime “festival of lights,” celebrated with a nightly menorah lighting, special prayers and fried foods. The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication,” and is thus named because it celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple. Also spelled Hanukkah (or variations of that spelling), the Hebrew word is actually pronounced with a guttural, “kh” sound, kha-nu-kah, not tcha-new-kah. — From Chabad.org
Back in 139 BCE, the Maccabees returned to Jerusalem to liberate it. In the Temple, they built a new altar and made a new menorah. When they wanted to light it, they found they only had enough oil to light it for one day. But that lamp kept burning for eight nights and was considered a miracle. Since then a festival of lights has been celebrated every year to remember the occasion. Candles are lit for eight nights, and families eat foods cooked with oil and exchange presents. — From CBC