The Jewish Festival of Lights began last night. It brightens winter’s gloom, offers hope we can overcome all the reasons we’ve had to despair. This year, Chanukah is more special than ever.
2020 brought us the COVID-19 pandemic, which shrouded America in darkness—especially since many tens of thousands of deaths probably could have been avoided if we all wore masks, kept our distance and avoided crowded indoor places. For those of us who cherish our democracy—both its accomplishments and opportunities for improvement—the last four years cast a pall over the nation.
We American Jews have experienced our own horrors.
The darkness of the Trump years included the 2017 march in Charlottesville, Virginia of anti-Semites chanting “Jews will not replace us”; the 2018 shooting murders of 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue; and the 2019 shooting at Chabad of Poway (north of San Diego) that killed one. A variety of anti-Semitic acts proliferated nationwide, in part thanks to a president who winks at “good people on both sides.”
This Chanukah, we have more reason than ever to light our chanukiahs—menorahs with not seven but nine candles, one used to kindle the other eight. We actively bring light to the world, hope to dark days. Those candles—one lit the first night of this eight-day holiday, an additional candle lit each succeeding night—take us back over 2,100 years.
In 162 BCE, the Jews fought against, and rid themselves of, the Assyrian Greeks who dominated Judea. (Disclosure: We also battled each other.) The most popular version of events leading to the holiday has been, until recently, the “miracle” of one day’s supply of pure olive oil burning for eight days in Jerusalem’s rededicated (chanukah means dedication) Second Temple.
Disclosure #2: The oil story was a Rabbinic cover-up. Years later, the Sages sought to keep Judea’s new occupier, Rome, off our backs. Celebrate a miracle? No problem. Celebrate armed rebellion? An invitation for the emperor’s legions to rampage.
Today in America, many Jews with little or no other connection to Judaism celebrate Chanukah. The holiday often serves as a counter to Christmas, whose symbols and music envelopes Jews, less than two percent of the population. But while Chanukah enables Jews to celebrate as the winter solstice approaches (and sometimes after), it also enables us to gather strength by looking back and so prepare to move forward.
The chanukiah reminds us that while life brings suffering, it also offers renewal. Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) says, “For everything there is a season.” In this regard, while human nature often betrays corruption, it also displays kindness and heroism. Proof of the latter surrounds us each day in the work of people in our healthcare, public health and other sectors that sustain us in the worst of times so that we can possibly enjoy the best.
Many paths lead towards hopefulness and lives of true humanity—caring and sharing. Chanukah marks one of the milestones along mine. Whatever yours may be—religious or secular—let’s agree that different isn’t bad. It’s just different. That alone will brighten our future.
In the broadest sense, Happy Chanukah whether it’s your holiday or not. May each chanukiah lead us towards the light of a fulfilling life embracing true humanity.
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