There is a deep human need to bring light into darkness. Traditions across the globe have light festivals in the darkest days to remind us that the light will return. Perhaps even in their origins they are sympathetic magic, that by lighting candles we can compel the light to return to our universe. Every tradition tells their own story, but they all return to bringing light into darkness, hope into despair.
The Jewish version, Hanukkah, has two origin stories. The most frequently told is particularistic. It tells of the Maccabees and their successful rebellion against the Greeks. The light of the Menorah remembers that victory and the miracle which followed when oil that should have lasted only one day instead burned for eight.
Yet my favorite Hanukkah story is not about the Maccabees, but instead about Adam and Eve. I believe Hanukkah has a message for the Jewish people but also for the world. According to Jewish tradition, Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit in Tishrei, the Jewish month closest to September. They are exiled from the garden and they realize that the days are getting shorter. They fear their sin has broken the world. Light is lessening and soon all will be engulfed in darkness. So, when that first winter solstice occurs, and the days begin to lengthen, they are grateful and amazed. From that year forth they would light candles in the darkest time of the year to remind themselves that light and hope remain.
We are living in another time of darkness and separation. The days are getting shorter and the COVID-19 counts are getting higher. We are confronting a national divide unseen in decades. In such a moment, it would be easy to give into despair, to imagine, as did Adam and Eve, that the light is leaving the universe and we are plunging into darkness and eternal separation.
Yet Judaism, as with so many other spiritual traditions, knows this is a lie of our shadow selves, what the Talmud calls the evil inclination. We light the menorah to remind ourselves of hope and remember that we must be ready to act, to light the way. We are the ones to bring hope and unity back into our lives and into civil society. Each night, Jews add one more candle so that Hanukkah has become eight nights of increasing light and hope.
This year, Conservative synagogues across the country are gathering for a special candle lighting on the eighth night, December 17th. This grass roots initiative will bring together synagogues from all fifty states to celebrate, remind ourselves of gratitude, and to be a light in the darkness. The pandemic, for all its power to separate, has inspired us to do a candle lighting the national scale of which we never previously could have dreamed.
It is a chance to bring together as equals and as friends both synagogues in large urban areas with meaningful resources and smaller communities that have struggled mightily. It is a reminder that we need unity and that we can and must support each other. It will be a vaccination of hope and gratitude for the next months of the pandemic, hopefully giving us the strength to arrive through this whole and in one piece. Communities from across the country have rushed to be a part of this because we are yearning for connection and for healing.
This event also offers a lesson for the post-COVID future. In a time when larger urban synagogues seemingly have all resources, this kind of national effort is a way to strengthen Judaism in all fifty states. By sharing resources, we are creating something unique and inspiring that is just as accessible to a tiny community in Wyoming or Alaska as it is to a booming Jewish center like Palo Alto. Further, by organizing it ourselves, we model an approach that any synagogue with a great idea can emulate.
Jewish tradition teaches that human souls are like candles for God. We, as it were, light the way for God; we, through our actions, help God bring light and unity and compassion back into our fractured world and nation. Hanukkah is the time to light our candles. In so doing, we remember that we have the God-given power to bring light and healing to a fractured world. And we recall that our deeds light the way for God to help us in the great task of repairing and healing the world.
People of all backgrounds are invited to join us for this unifying holiday celebration! Join us for IllumiNation on YouTube Live, Thursday, December 17th at 8:30pm EST / 5:30 PST
Rabbi David Booth is the spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, Calif.