Oh Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah

Posted on December 24, 2019

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett

We are in the midst of Hanukkah, the Festival of Light. Exactly why we celebrate it has been a matter of debate for generations. Yes, we celebrate a miracle, for as it is written upon the letters of the dreidel (Nun, Gimel, Hey, Shin—or if you are in Israel, Peh) in acronym: “a great miracle happened there” (or in Israel, “here.”)

But which miracle are we celebrating? The miracle of a small band of zealous Jews who refused to give into the oppressive demands of the Syrian-Greeks, led by the tyrant Antiochous? Or the later traditional explanation: that a small cruse of pure oil, needed to relight the menorah in the Temple lasted for eight days? Or is the real miracle that the people, despite knowing the oil would last only one day, lit it anyway, and in so doing demonstrated that while much had been destroyed, their hope and courage could not be quashed? In the end, does it matter?

Perhaps, the miracle of the tiny vessel that prevailed against all odds to last far longer than anyone might have anticipated is a metaphor for the rebellion. The defeat of the mighty by the small and inspired—it is a proud tradition for us to remember. A miracle in the midst of certain defeat—the spirit of the few prevailing over the physical might of the powerful.

We recall the miracle in ritual, song, and even (of course) in our gastronomic choices. We light the chanukiah, beginning with a single candle for the first night, and each night increasing the light by one candle, until all eight (plus the shamash) are ablaze. The second blessing we recite: “she-asah nisim l’avoteinu, ba-yamim ha-heim, baz’man hazeh” thanks God for the “miracles that God made for our ancestors in their days at this season.” We eat latkes and jelly donuts (sufganiot) fried in olive oil to recall the miracle (metaphorical or not) of the oil.

Hanukkah, which, in Hebrew, means “dedication,” is also the Festival of Light, and many other religious traditions celebrate winter festivals of light, at this, the darkest time of the calendar year. But I think, the connection between Hanukkah, the light of the candles, the spirit of a small band of people (the Maccabbees) to defeat a much bigger foe, the miracle of a small vessel of oil lasting a week has another dimension.

The Baal Shem Tov, 18th Century founder of Chassidism, said, “From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven.” Each of us has within us the light, the spark of the Divine, to prevail against the odds and do amazing things.

The prophet Zechariah says in the haftarah for Shabbat Hanukkah, “Not by might, and not by power, but by my spirit…” Perhaps we are meant, at this time of the year (“ba’zeman hazeh”) to rededicate ourselves in the darkest, coldest time of the year to renewing that spark of light that resides in all of us.

Each of us has that light, no matter how dimmed it might have grown over a difficult year or other adversity, or how brightly it still shines in your life. In this joyous season of Hanukkah, surrounded by the light of the chanukia, by celebration, by song, and community can be rededicated, relit, renewed for another year.