I love Hanukkah — but for very different reasons than why my kids love Hanukkah.
My kids love it because each one of the six of them have a hanukkiah, and I let them each light their own, which apparently appeals to their respective inner pyromaniacs. They love spinning dreidels and the built-in “Intro to Gambling” class they receive, courtesy of a four-sided top and chocolate gelt (in lieu of actual money). And, let’s be honest: They love getting presents, even if the gifts we give in our family are more akin to “stocking stuffers” than big-ticket items.
But this year, I find myself just as excited about Hanukkah as they are.
This year, as you may be aware, has been a veritable shitstorm of derailed plans and thwarted expectations — and that’s if you’re lucky, and everyone in your house has remained healthy and well. We are all grappling with grief this year, whether it’s the grief of having lost someone or the grief for the year that should have been. There have been so many cancelled or postponed simchas, which may seem small compared to death and grief, but come with their own sense of loss: bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, birthday parties, proms, vacations. Endless Zoom school and Zoom meetings are enough to make anyone never want to look at a computer again. The emotional toll of living your life as a perverse riff on Choose Your Own Adventure books (something I wrote about here🙂 is often unacknowledged. But it’s real, because this kind of lifestyle chips away at us: We’re just not wired to be making potentially life-or-death decisions on a daily basis. While walking a tightrope. Blindfolded.
In short, this is exactly why I need Hanukkah.
I need Hanukkah — and that’s not just because of my deep, abiding, and eternal love for fried potatoes. (Full disclosure: I’m Team Sour Cream, but, honestly, I might switch it up to sriracha this year, because #2020.) I need Hanukkah due to my desperate yearning for light.
In these darkest days of the year, we are all too keenly aware that we have been in darkness for what feels like so long. And that’s not just because the sun is literally setting in the afternoon for many of us: Our nation is torn apart by various forces with various motives. Whether it’s those who deny science by refusing to wear masks, or those who deny the election results, or those who deny the existence of inequities and systemic racism in our country, there’s a lot of people who seem to prefer the dark.
To this, I say: Bring. On. The. Light. We all need to be reminded, now more than ever, that darkness can be conquered by even the smallest flame. We all need to remember, amidst all this sadness, that hope can exist in a sea of despair.
On Hanukkah, we celebrate a small band of Jews who refused to assimilate and deny who they were. Under the oppression of the Syrian-Greeks, Jews who wanted to continue to be Jewish — to keep Shabbat, to keep kosher, to circumcise their boys — had to do so in secret and in darkness. The Maccabees were Jews who fought against the oppressor, and in doing so, got their Temple back, as well as the ability to live their lives as Jews. Once their ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower (see what I did there?) won the war, they could live their Jewish lives once more, proudly, out in the open, out in the light.
According to legend, when the Jews redeemed the Temple from the Syrian-Greek oppressors, it was totally desecrated — and there was only enough oil to light the Temple menorah for one day. But, miraculously, that oil lasted for all eight days that it took to make more oil.
This year, that legend has resonance as a metaphor in these dark times. Just when we think we’re running on empty, that we have nothing left to give? (You know, that feeling you’ve had for months now?) Well, that little bit of strength and hope that we have left isn’t inadequate: It’s actually more than enough. Because in that little bit that remains, there is resilience. There is possibility. There is light.
We are the little bit of the Jewish people that remains after centuries of persecution and genocide. Anyone who bets would have put the odds against us long ago. And yet, despite all the forces against us over the generations, we still live. And yet, despite everything, as Jews we still believe it is our responsibility and our purpose to put light into the darkness. It is incumbent upon us, individually and as a people, to infuse the world with hope, with purpose, with kindness, and to repair all that is broken.
The Maccabees took on an army so much bigger than they were, and won. And Hanukkah today shows us that even the smallest flame of light — of hope, of determination, and of love — can eradicate the darkness around it.
That’s why I need Hanukkah this year: to remind myself and my family (and who knows, maybe even you!) that there is always the ability to make a light, however small, in the darkness, however large. We can make our own miracles. In fact, we are the miracles. And that’s a message that I’m sure we all desperately need to hear in these dark times.
You may not be able to invent a vaccine for Covid-19 — though if you can, good for you! — but you can put light into the darkness, and thus, in your own way, defeat it. Hanukkah means “rededication” — and I’m using these days to rededicate myself to putting light into the world. There is so much we can do to fight the darkness. You can reach out to some friends today, whether by phone call or text, and check and see how they are doing in these rough times. You can buy some little gifts from local stores and support small businesses that are struggling. You can make sure to send thoughtful personal thank you notes to your kids’ teachers, because those people are heroes. You can send a meal or some puzzles (or both!) to a family quarantined with Covid-19.
When you light your Hanukkah candles tonight, look at the difference even the smallest candles can make in the largest darkness. These are literally our darkest days; they are so dark that so many of us don’t even know where we are anymore in this dark tunnel. But we are marching toward the light. I believe in you. We believe in each other. We are the miracles. And we can all make more light than we thought we could. Hanukkah sameach! Let there be light.
Header image by tomertu/ Getty Images