Wednesday, January 23, 2019 -
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Light over might


For eight days, at twilight, we will be kindling in the darkness, our windows ablaze in light. Since we were very little, we were raised with the idea that we light Chanukah candelabras as a way of publicizing the Chanukah miracle that the Maccabees encountered in Jerusalem so long ago.

When the sages of the Talmudic era debated the essence of the holiday of Chanukah, when they were crafting rituals to memorialize a miracle for future Jewish generations to come, they emphasized the miracle of light, versus the miracle of might (the military victory). Only if one eats bread and is thus required to recite the long Grace after Meals, including the “Al ha-Nissim” Chanukah reference, does one encounter the miraculous victory in battle. Only in the Grace is this aspect of the holiday addressed. The battle is rooted in historic fact, yet the rabbis chose to de-emphasize violence, war — the might of man. Instead, they chose to highlight (pardon the pun) the dispelling darkness with light.

Mai Chanukah? is the Talmudic question. What, exactly, is Chanukah? What is its character? How should it be remembered?

Not only was the conclusion the lighting of the menorah, but it was given so much weight. It is incumbent upon a poor person as well, someone for whom candles and wicks are a serious expense.

Clearly, lighting Chanukah candles is an important expression of our Judaism. But what is the meaning of illuminating the dark streets of winter — of a blazing menorah on a final night of Chanukah?

Just when the nights begin to lengthen a bit and and light begins to increase, we incrementally add light to the dark world of winter. It’s an expression of being in sync with nature. It is as if we are validating the natural world, saying, yes, by all means, keep adding more light, we are with you, we too are adding more light to the world. We are one with nature.

But lighting up the darkness cannot be taken for granted. It can be such a difficult thing to do. What if your miracle didn’t come? What if it really is just plain unrelenting heavy darkness? What, then? It’s easy to say, just light a candle; it’s a different story to find the wherewithal and do what it takes to kindle the darkness with light.

In lighting a candle in the dark, a person is making the most optimistic statement. When there is darkness, when there is bitter cold with no heat or warmth, a candle is a symbolic way of transcending those difficulties. It’s lighting your own light, your own miracle, when there is none found to publicize. It’s a way of adding your light and hoping it generates a new miracle.

In a sense that is what we are celebrating, because that is precisely what Judah the Maccabee himself did. His choice to sanctify the Temple was a human attempt to rekindle darkness. Instead of waiting for a miracle, he took the human initiative to change the course of history.

Although the point of the Temple, as Jeremiah the prophet taught again and again, was our ethical character and not simply the observance of religious rituals, there is a power in bringing into existence in a tangible way, a religious precept. Wanting it is one thing, taking initiative to manifest it, whether the miracle has arrived or not, has a power all its own.

Sometimes, if you want the light, the heat, the sun, you need to kindle it yourself.

And sometimes, achieving this act of affirmation within darkness is the essence of the light itself.

In the language of the House of Hillel, whose custom we follow in lighting the Chanukah menorah, we are mosif ve-holech, we increase one light a night, until the culmination of a blazing menorah on the eighth day of Chanukah.

Sometimes lighting just one candle at a time is the miracle that keeps a person going.

When I think of lighting the Chanukah candles, I always think of those dedicated Jews who risked their lives in the Holocaust to light the menorah. At that time, kindling a Chanukah menorah in the thick and paralyzing darkness of the Holocaust must have meant something different to them than it meant for Judah Maccabee, or for us.

Their miracle never came. But they lit it. And in some way, their flame touched that of Judah Maccabee and in some way their flame touches ours, yours and mine, when we stand by the radiating menorah.

Despite the profound and shattering pain, no greater expression of human, Jewish, affirmation during the war could be found. Lighting a candle for a miracle long ago, while they were in their own world of darkness, in real time, when miracles never came.

Lighting a candle in the light does not really have definition or purpose. But summoning the courage to light a candle in the darkness of the Holocaust and to publicize an ancient miracle, now that is a miracle.

That is the miracle of the Jewish people: persecution after persecution, attack after attack, generation after generation, retaining a lit candle, sometimes dim, almost fading, but keeping an ember alive, and radiating light and hope, instead of closing down and fading away.

This is Chanukah. Whether the miracle or the redemption arrives or not, our wicks keep burning and illuminating, breathing life, warmth and spark into the colder spells of our lives, of our history, of the world.

One candle at a time.

Copyright © 2017 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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