Chanukah, we often say, is the festival of light. From Minnesota to Jerusalem, menorahs shine brightly on cold December nights. And especially this year, we link ourselves to all Jews throughout the world who are lighting candles. Seeing a menorah ablaze in a window brings light and warmth to our souls.
Lighting candles holds a special place in Jewish ritual; in many ways, all Jewish time is a festival of light. As we celebrate Chanukah this year, we can remember that each week we are invited to bring light into our souls and our homes by lighting Shabbat candles as the sun sets on Friday nights, and then Havdalah candles as the stars begin to shine on Saturday night. Judaism gives us twenty-five hours, our tradition teaches, framed by lights that seem to illuminate so much more than the physical space around us.
However, the story of Chanukah is more complex than the legend of the oil lasting eight nights. In truth, the story we read in the book of Maccabees, set against a backdrop of great social and political upheaval, tells not only of the persecution of our ancestors by the Greeks but also of conflict between Jews. The connection to light was a later invention of our rabbis. Why would they do this?
Uncomfortable with exalting acts of aggression, the rabbis of the Talmud told a new story for us to pass down to our children: Rooted in the celebration of the Jewish people returning to the Temple, Chanukah became a unifying story of light, and that light a symbol of Jewish survival. In Shabbat 21A in the Babylonian Talmud, the sages teach that Chanukah commemorates the miracle of oil burning for eight days even though the Jews had only enough for one day. That oil burned brightly in the ancient temple as the community restored it, making their space sacred again.
The rabbinic retelling of Chanukah, even in its departure from historical events, imparts profound truths: Sometimes, it seems we only have enough oil to last a day—our strength and hope dwindling in the face of the world’s pain. It can feel as though we don’t have what it takes to bring our world and ourselves back into sacred balance and order. But this story reminds us that, even on the cold winter nights of our lives, the lights of hope shine brightly.
In a certain way, every Shabbat is a kind of Chanukah. It is a moment to step into, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, the “realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.” The lights of Shabbat and the lights of Chanukah can spark this truth in us.
This past Friday night, we were blessed with a Chanukah & Shabbat of so many lights. May we remember that our resources of love, compassion, and caring are abundant. May we remember that we, too, like the rabbis, can tell a new story; a story that can keep our lights aflame by being a generation that holds on to resilience. May we live our lives now framed and filled by light, so that the story our descendants will tell about us is that we worked together to create miracles of light, not only on Chanukah, but, from Shabbat to Shabbat, from joy to sorrow.
Learn more about Chanukah and Shabbat at Temple Israel by visiting www.templeisrael.com.