Hanukkah begins on Thursday night…and not a minute too soon.
At noon on Tuesday, every cellphone in Southern California buzzed with an emergency alert from the state office of emergency services: “New public health stay at home order in your area. COVID-19 is spreading rapidly. Stay home except for essential activity. Wear a mask. Keep your distance.”
There is darkness…and we need light. There is worry…and we need calm. There is isolation…and we need community. There is an enemy…and we need a miracle to overcome it.
Two thousand and fifty-five years ago, a small band of zealous Jews also faced darkness, worry, isolation, and a seemingly intractable enemy. The Syrian-Greek overlords had desecrated the holy Temple in Jerusalem, capturing the menorah, rendering the sanctuary dark. Mattathias and his five sons worried that some Jews were losing their religion by assimilating into the attractive Hellenistic culture. The Maccabees, isolated in Modi’in, embarked on a seemingly quixotic guerilla war, overmatched and unlikely to succeed.
Miraculously, they defeated the Selucid army, entered Jerusalem in triumph and reclaimed the Temple. They relit the menorah and celebrated for eight days. Why eight? It was likely a kind of late Sukkot. Yet, the Hasmonean dynasty lasted less than two hundred years, falling to the Roman Empire which burned the Temple and Jerusalem to the ground in the year 70 C.E.
Although dispersed and defeated, the survivors nevertheless celebrated the triumph of the Maccabees, the memory of that improbable victory remained fresh in the popular imagination. They lit candles for eight nights in Kislev, the darkest month of the year. probably borrowing from other cultures that fought the darkness with light. The rabbis, uneasy with a celebration of militarism that ultimately led to disaster, sought to reinvent the reason for the holiday by asking a startling question in the Talmud: “Mai Hanukkah?” – literally ”Why Hanukkah?” The underlying question was: “What’s the deal with this Hanukkah business?” Unable to dissuade people from celebrating, they set about giving the holiday a new meaning, making God, not the Maccabees, the hero of the story and adding the miracle of a single vial of oil lasting eight days.
We need to reinvent Hanukkah again.
“In every age, a hero or sage, came to our aid,” the old Hanukkah song teaches. Who will our heroes be in this age? The frontline health professionals, the epidemiologists, the inventors of vaccines? The lights of Hanukkah, whether you believe in miracles or not, illuminate the darkest days of winter, a kind of shot in the arm. Couldn’t we all use a shot in the arm right about now?
Light and dark – a dialectic that defines the experience of life. On the very same day our phones lit up with a dark warning, they also broadcast “V-Day” in the United Kingdom, the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Moncef Slaoui, director of the unprecedented rush to develop multiple vaccines, proclaimed “there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Yet, his counterpart in the U.K., Dr. Stephen Powis, warned of the rollout: “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” It will take many months to fully inoculate the population. In the meantime, we will need to keep our distance and wear our masks, possibly until Hanukkah 2021.
Hope and fear – another dialectic that defines the experience of life. In a famous Talmudic passage, a rabbi named Rava postulates that when we arrive in heaven, we are asked questions about how we lived our lives on earth. In my book The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven (Jewish Lights Publishing), I explore these questions. One of my favorites is “tzipita li’shuah,” literally “did you hope for salvation?” The key word is hope. Did you live your life in hope…or in fear? There’s a thin line between the two. But, throughout our history, we have chosen hope. The national anthem of the Jewish people is Ha-tikva – “the hope.” We end our Passover Seder with words of hope: “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
God willing, next year on Hanukkah, we can gather again in our synagogues to celebrate the miracles of hope and resilience, of victory over this invisible enemy. I recently learned that many Black churches of the South mount an annual “homecoming” event inviting people to gather for a reunion. There is song, ritual and a meal. It is not just for the current members of the church; a special effort is made to welcome back former members. No questions asked – just “come on home.” There is no denying the pandemic has caused a decline in synagogue membership, even in many of our largest congregations. On this Hanukkah, let’s begin planning our homecomings for the next.
I get goosebumps just imagining these celebrations. We will turn on the lights of our darkened sanctuaries. We will fill the seats with young and old, raising our voices once again in a chorus of thanksgiving, unfettered by masks. We will be unafraid to touch, to hug, to kiss. We will light the hanukkiyah. We will experience a true “hanukkah,” a physical “rededication” of our sacred gathering places. We will praise the first responders, the doctors, the scientists, and all those who brought us through the pandemic. We will pray ancient words that have a new meaning: “Praised are You, our God, sovereign of the universe, who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in those ancient days at this season.”
On Hanukkah this year, may God bless all those who shine light in the darkness, instilling hope in our hearts, bringing us to our next Hanukkah in joy, in happiness, in health.
Dr. Ron Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He is the author of Hanukkah: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration and Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community (both Jewish Lights Publishing).