The story of Hanukkah – like the story of Christmas – has never felt more necessary or relevant for our times.
It is, as many of the stories of the Talmud, not necessarily a story that happened historically exactly as it is told. Which means that the story itself is meant to be the point – there’s something in this story that is not particular to an historical occurrence – but is trying to teach us something about life as a whole, across all time, and culture, and religions.
Imagine the rise of a narcissistic dictator, a rise that led to generations of tyranny, oppression, fear – so that many of your people had been terrorized and even killed by those in power.
Imagine for many years not being able to gather or practice the religion and customs of your birth – all those things that mean the most to you being outlawed.
And then imagine, hope against hope, that a small band of rebels, without enough resources or enough people – without any real reason to think they could be successful,
manage to overthrow those in power, and liberate everyone into a new and possible freedom.
This is the story of the Jewish people after the rebellion of the “small band” known as the Maccabees. Finally these people who had lived on the edge of despair for so long would be able to return to their temple, which was for them a place of security and memory and hope.
They were celebrating, purifying, remembering and re-claiming – the Assyrian army had been defeated, and they were free.
During the many years before – in the years of hiding in caves and fending off arrest, they had missed their great festival of Sukkot, which must be celebrated in the temple, and so now that they had returned they began the ritual of the harvest as their promises with God required.
As they began, however, they realized that the Assyrians had destroyed all but one night’s worth of oil for the lamp. They needed 8 days worth – anything less would not allow a true re-dedication or commitment to begin again as a religious community and as a people.
After all they had been through, it mattered that they do it right, and completely – it mattered that they not let the light go out.
This is when we are told that a “miracle” happened, because rather than lamp staying lit for one day, the oil lasted for the whole 8 days.
These 8 days are why during Hanukkah we celebrate for a 8 nights, and each night we light a new candle on the menorah.
This center candle is the lead candle, so we light it first. And then each night we would go from right to left lighting a candle – and offering a blessing.
In the traditional version it would be something like….
Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe
Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us
to light the lights of Chanukkah.
Blessed are you, Lord, our God,
Who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.
In feminist and other liberal reform traditions today, instead of or in addition to these traditional prayers, you might also offer justice-related blessings – for example –
We dedicate this candle to TOLERANCE.
Let this candle light the way for us to create a world of mutual respect and tolerance among all people.
We dedicate this candle to PEACE. Let us use our freedom to create a world that uses words to build bridges among people and does not destroy each other.
We dedicate this candle to COURAGE. More important than physical courage is the courage of our moral convictions, the struggle for the ideas and ideals we hold . Let this light remind us that without courage, those ideas and ideals remain unfulfilled.
We dedicate this candle to JUSTICE. Let this light remind us of the other’s needs and inspire us to share what we have with generosity and love.
I have heard of other Hanukkah blessings that lift up the stories of justice, or of teachers, or that find other ways to translate the meaning of the miracle for our world today.
And in the traditional telling, that miracle was primarily about the lamp that kept burning far beyond what it should have – that’s how you end up with latkes and other oil-heavy foods as a part of the Hanukkah celebration!
But I think it’s important that we remember, and what makes this story especially important for us today – is that there’s something else miraculous that happened….something that made the 8 nights possible in the first place.
Which was the choice that was made to light the lamp in the first place, even though everything seemed hopeless. Even though it seemed like their effort could not be enough.
In the past few months I’ve heard many people wonder what they should be doing,
how to make a real difference, and if what they were doing was enough, if it really mattered.
Sometimes we can get so paralyzed with this feeling we don’t do anything at all. But as we move forward together into the new year – it seems we need to do everything we can to help each other keep making the choice to light that first candle.
We need to find those practices that help us connect with hope, with love, with joy, with gratitude – all the things that will keep us from despair.
We don’t know what the future will bring – in our own lives, or in the world.
We don’t know if our actions will be enough.
But the only ways they could be at all, is if we try.
And just as importantly – if we keep trying – because although the celebration of Hanukkah – just Christmas and the new year – are these annual one-time events, their invitation to us is to find ways to light that first candle every day.
To wake up and take the risk of leaning into love, learning something new, relieving ourselves of some old fear or prejudice, trusting that grace will show up, that a way is still being made where it seems there is no way.
And just like the night 8 days ago that marked both Christmas Eve and Hanukkah,
it is powerful to remember that there are more and more of us taking that leap,
being that miracle – together calling forth the future in all of its limitless possibilities.