Lighting Us Up: An Ode to Chanukkah

By Rabbi David
December 2020 – doorway into winter nights and then increasing light, a new U.S. presidency, a world still breaking into an uncertain future. What we see may depend partly on how we look and how we are.

This year especially, December’s usual “light up the dark” spiritual theme feels timely – not because it’s easy for us to change how we see, but because we need that power now more than ever.

Chanukkah’s popular symbols, remnant oil and enduring light, can turn us toward that spiritual power. There are reasons that lighting up the darkness is a potent theme for many communities at this season: Christians have Christmas, Hindus have Diwali, African Americans have Kwanzaa, Jews have Chanukkah – all festivals of light. The commonality of a spiritual symbol bespeaks its universal truth, its shared human longing.

Befitting the Jewish refraction of global light, Chanukkah is… Jewishly speaking, complex. The historical Chanukkah was about overcoming Greek repression. During the 2nd century B.C.E., Judah Maccabi’s forces saved Judaism by throwing off Greek tyranny, scoring a victory for resilience and spiritual diversity.

But resistance came at a cost. Radicalized by struggle, the victors forcibly converted survivors to a rigidly doctrinal Judaism. Chanukkah’s zealotry was why ancient rabbis didn’t want Chanukkah to become a holiday: why glorify violence (and, politically, undermine rabbinic power)? But Jews voted with their candles: we needed light. Chanukkah was here to stay.

Today we still need light, and we face existential threat. We still need resilience, and we risk becoming hard. The covid crisis and political polarization are as real in our days as our ancestors’ struggle to survive occupation. And after this era’s existential threats, what will our world be?

This year’s Chanukkah therefore calls us to light up the darkness not only with our candles but also with our lives – to use the light to stay soft rather than hard, compassionate rather than zealous, nimble rather than dogmatic.

As we light this year’s Chanukkah’s candles and watch them burn down, send the light to everywhere within that has become hard, zealous or rigid during these turbulent months. Summon Chanukkah’s light not to pretend away the dark of this season (for it too is real), but to summon our power to live lightfully in the darkest days.  Summon Chanukkah’s light to inspire us to become that light for another, then another, then another.

Surely that would be the kind of miracle our world needs now.
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