If we fear “advertising” our identities, we should do everything we can to maintain our inner light and self-worth in trying times. (photo from PxHere)
Years ago, my husband lost both his grandmother and his great aunt. Several years apart, he traveled to the Lower East Side in New York to attend their funerals at the same funeral home. There was a rabbi there who officiated at both funerals. This rabbi told the same story twice. Perhaps he had only the one funeral teaching, but my husband remembered it. This rabbi suggested that a famous rabbi taught that the worst of the plagues against the Egyptians was darkness. Why was darkness the worst? It was all encompassing, overwhelming, and seemingly permanent. No one knew if the sun would ever return. This rabbi used this to talk about death, but the metaphor stayed with us.
Despite our efforts to find the source for this story, we couldn’t track down its origin. While looking for it, I thought about darkness and what we can learn from it as we celebrate Hanukkah this year.
There are parallels between the Hanukkah story and our current struggles. Before Oct. 7, Israelis were distracted by potential changes to their court system and very divided politically. While that political turmoil didn’t disappear in the face of the massacre and the war, Israelis have immediately united in the aftermath to work together. Israelis I know have said that it isn’t the government that is taking care of those who are displaced, but rather nongovernmental organizations and volunteers from every corner of Israeli society. Israelis are cooking meals for soldiers, for moms managing as single parents for long periods of time, and for those who have been evacuated or made homeless by the conflict. Israelis and the Jewish people worldwide have also worked together as a people to take care of one another.
The military conflict of Hanukkah is a story of division and unity. There were Jews at this time, around 200 BCE, who had become increasingly assimilated and Hellenized. They cooperated with the Seleucid Empire. There was societal upheaval. Others were more traditional in practice and offended by the changes made by more “liberal”-minded Jews and King Antiochus. The Maccabees represented the traditional or more orthodox Jewish tradition. They rose up against King Antiochus’s pagan practices and the more assimilated Jews who had adapted to Hellenistic practice.
We know now that the Maccabees won these battles. They rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem. This is a military victory and a story around religious or national liberation. The rabbis tried to focus the religious observance on the miracle of the light (the “ner tamid,” the holy flame in the Temple that should not go out) rather than on the military situation. However, we wouldn’t have Hanukkah without these historical cultural conflicts or the Maccabees’ wars.
The historical details of this struggle are in the books of the First and Second Maccabees, which describe the Hanukkah story. While there are many references to the holiday in the Mishnah, the detailed story has been maintained through the Catholic and Orthodox churches, which kept First and Second Maccabees as part of their Old Testament. Protestants don’t include these books in their bibles. We study these texts to understand Hanukkah, but they don’t hold any official status in Jewish tradition.
This, too, has a parallel to our modern experience. While we know our traditions around Hanukkah, some of the context comes from many historical texts preserved by others. During this war against Hamas, we are being forced to defend ourselves against antisemitism, and also to defend the existence of the state of Israel. The worldwide Jewish community doesn’t have to use our personal experiences to educate others about this. The historical contexts for understanding both antisemitism and the need for the existence of the state of Israel are embedded in world history. Learning about the historical roots of Christian antisemitism in Europe or in the dhimmi law of Islamic empires is part of the greater history. Information about when the Romans conquered Israel and destroyed the second Temple can be found in multiple sources, including on the Arch of Titus in Rome. The creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948 is also part of a much broader historical context.
The rabbis chose, in creating the rules around the holiday of Hanukkah, to focus on light and miracles rather than military victories. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (z”l) wrote in “8 Short Thoughts for 8 Hanukkah Nights” about the ways in which the light is emphasized. His fifth short thought focuses on Maimonides’ teaching about how to fulfil the mitzvah of Hanukkah. Maimonides teaches that lighting candles on Hanukkah is precious and that one must sell something or borrow to fulfil this commandment. Yet, if one finds Shabbat is coming and you have only one candle? Light it for Shabbat. In this case, Maimonides teaches: “The Shabbat light takes priority because it symbolizes shalom bayit, domestic peace. And great is peace because the entire Torah was given to make peace in the world.” Sacks suggests that, “in Judaism, the greatest military victory takes second place to peace in the home.” He points out the great victory is a spiritual and not military one.
For Israel today, too, the great victory must be the notion of continuing to pray and negotiate for peace while also navigating difficult military situations.
Sacks makes several points that could be articles on their own, but the ones I felt most drawn to remain relevant. The Hanukkah candles should be lit so that people can see them outside, but if one is afraid of inviting hate, it has long been taught that it is OK to light the candles indoors, out of public view. Still, we are meant to be public about our “light” more generally and fight for it, if necessary. If we fear “advertising” our identities, we should do everything we can to maintain our inner light and self-worth in trying times.
Finally, Sacks discusses a story in the Talmud in which Rav and Shmuel, third-century rabbis, disagree over whether you can use one Hanukkah candle to light another (if you lack an extra candle, a shamash, the helper candle, that is used to light the other eight candles). Rav suggests that you may not, as this might diminish the light of the first candle. Shmuel disagrees, and halachah (Jewish law) follows Shmuel, who teaches that you can use one Hanukkah candle to light another because it helps the light grow and brings us more light. Using your light to enlighten others is the best practice.
I bumped into a rabbi I admire who lives in Winnipeg, where I live. We were each dropping off kids at a Jewish youth group activity. He wore a ball cap, as he was “off duty.” I thanked him for his contribution to a news article about the war and local protests, and he responded, “These are dark times.”
Like the plague of darkness in Egypt, we don’t know exactly how or when things will lighten. We need Hanukkah’s message and rituals to offer that light. Maybe we won’t put our Hanukkah candles on public display this year, but we can draw wisdom and comfort from our long history and rabbinic teachings. These teach us to reach deep to find the messages of hope, faith and peace from a story about a war. This time around, we need to act individually like Hanukkah candles. We can lend our inner lights to volunteer, to speak out, to support others and to kindle others’ lights during a hard time. Even during times of war and hate, we can be the light.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.