Our Role In Illuminating The World

Like many winter holidays, Hanukkah comes during the darkest times with an expression of light and hope. There is a midrash that Adam, the first human didn’t experience darkness until the end of the first Sabbath, at the end of the seventh day of creation. And when the sun went down for the first time, he had the fear that the darkness would last forever. Can you imagine the joy and awe he experienced when the sun rose the next day and he realized that light will always be a part of our world?

The seasonal change teaches this same lesson as the days get progressively shorter and darker until the moment of winter solstice, and the light and length of days returns. Lighting the Hanukkah menorah, starting with one candle the first night and then increasing each night until all eight are lit, is our human ritual affirmation of this cycle in nature, but even more importantly, our role to make it a reality in our human dimension.

When we experience darkness, hate, violence in the world around us, our heart breaks for the pain and suffering of others. And as difficult as it is to be open to others suffering and pain around us, it is human and Divine to share that burden. The Kotzer rebbe teaches, “there is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” However, often what accompanies the grief is powerlessness. We see injustice and hate and we can feel paralyzed and impotent. And that it is only a matter of time until we become victims of the darkness.

The holiday of Hanukkah comes to remind us that the light is always available and we have a necessary role to play in “kindling” light in our lives that can have unknown ripples in the universe. While the story of the small group of Israelites defeating the much larger Syrian Greek army in 2nd century BCE is a testament to the possibility of miracles and hope against oppression, it’s not the story that our Sages chose to focus on when telling the Hanukkah story. In the Talmud, the Hanukkah story is related beginning with what happens after the military victory. The heart of the story is about the act of rededicating the desecrated Temple in Jerusalem. In order to celebrate the 8 day dedication festival, they needed pure olive oil to light the Menorah for 8 days and they only had enough oil for one day. The miracle was that it lasted for eight and they were able to dedicate the Temple properly.

For someone new to the story, the oil lasting for eight days instead of one is interesting, but perplexing to focus on this “miracle” with such fanfare. If the miracle didn’t happen, couldn’t the Israelites just dedicate the Temple without the menorah lighting for the remaining seven days? Or just wait a little longer for the dedication until they could get more oil?

A beautiful midrash explains a deeper understanding of the miracle. It begins with story of Noah at the end of the flood when Noah opened the ark door and saw that the entire earth was covered in water – no life to be seen outside the water. He sends out the dove, wondering if there is any part of the earth that was untouched by the flood. The dove comes back with an olive branch showing that this branch with a few olives attached was not touched by the storm. Noah picked the olives off the branch, pressed them into oil and then stored that oil in a vial that was passed on over generations until the Macabbees found that very flask of oil in the Temple when they were cleaning it up. The miracle oil that lasted for eight days was the oil pressed from the olives that the flood could not touch.

The deeper truth of the story is that each one of us has a dimension of our being that is pure oil, that can not be touched by any storm and any darkness. This oil can create light – not light that will be extinguished, but light that lasts forever. Since seven is a number that refers to the cycle of time through the days of the week, eight is symbolic of infinity – not only in the shape of the numeral, but in the teaching that it transcends the normal cycle of time. The lighting of the Hanukkah menorah is the symbolic communal expression of the pure oil and infinite source of light in each one of us that is where we can draw from to illuminate the world in this dark time.

In the natural world, the light will always come back. But in the human dimension, we need to recognize and affirm the light that is with us and surrounds us.

The Holy One wants all the world to see how Yisrael lights for the One Who lights the whole world. To what may this be compared? To a sighted man leading a blind man along the road. When they come inside, the man with sight says to his blind companion, “Take a candle and light my way.” Says the blind man, “Please! This whole way your sight has been my support and now you tell me to bring the light?”

 Said his companion, “I don’t want you to feel dependent on me for all my help, so I ask you now to do the same for me!”

 So too, the Holy One tells Yisrael, “Light for Me…”

Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 15:5

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