With Chanukah arriving post September 11th, in addition to the tradition and poignant memories of the past, I will be seeking perspective and inspiration.
The theme of the holiday is light, a theme which occupies a prominent place in Jewish thought and practice. In addition to the Chanukah lights, Jews kindle Sabbath candles, Yom Tov candles, and the Yahrzeit candles to remember a departed soul. Indeed we are taught that creation of the world began with God's pronouncement, "Let there be light." Our sages teach us that the flame of God is the soul of man. We are further advised that a little bit of light banishes a lot of darkness, and that it takes only one small flame to kindle many others.
The story of Chanukah commemorates the Jews triumphant retrieval of the Holy Temple from the Hellenists. In meeting our ritual responsibility to light the candelabra the Jews found that there was only enough pure oil to burn for one day. And, as is so characteristic of our people, we did not focus on how we would manage tomorrow, or what the next day would bring. We did what that moment called for! Miraculously the one-day supply burned for eight days by which time new pure oil could be pressed.
Even if the brightness of the candelabra of our existence appears to be diminished, we need to access even the smallest bit of available light.
This serves as great instruction and inspiration for me. It says to me that regardless of the prevailing and depressing climate of darkness surrounding us, we need to celebrate the joys of every day and invest our moments meaningfully. We need to spend more time with our families and friends. Even if the brightness of the candelabra of our existence appears to be diminished, we need to access even the smallest bit of available light. Regardless of the insecurity, unpredictability, and appearance of hopelessness, nonetheless, we as Jews need to do what we have always done, and that is leave tomorrow to God.
I am struck by another value highlighted in the story of Chanukah. The miracle of Chanukah included great military victories. The small Jewish army triumphed against the mighty Hellenist forces; the few vanquished the many. It is certainly a historically noteworthy fact, but typically not the focus of our celebration during this holiday. Wars and bloodshed have always been abhorrent to the Jewish people, resorted to only in defense and even then viewed as a necessary evil. We are the people of the book, not the sword. War and killing violates our essence and even when, as in the story of Chanukah it was unavoidable, for us Jews it is not worthy of commemoration or celebration. Consistent with this value, on Chanukah, we don't have military parades or testimonials to war heroes. In the current idiom, Golda Mier expressed it well. She said, "We may someday forgive our enemies for killing our boys but we will never forgive them for making our boys into killers."
Eli Wiesel once noted that upon the liberation of his death camp at the conclusion of World War II, many of the non-Jewish inmates of the camp celebrated their first moment of freedom by pillaging neighboring villages, thus taking revenge and settling the score with their oppressors. In stark contrast, the first act of freedom for Jews of the camp was to convene a minyan, (a quorum) for a prayer service.
Jews all over the world will light candles -- candles against the night and the darkness -- and we will pray. We will pray that death and killing will cease to be part of the human experience. We will pray that the illumination of the Chanukah flames will spread to the four corners of the world bringing clarity, Torah values, God's wisdom, kindness, and compassion to fill the hearts, souls, and lives of all people on earth.