Chanukah is a quiet holiday. In Israel, the holiday season is marked not by colored lights and spectacular one-day sales, but by the appearance of jelly doughnuts in the corner store. No muzak carols, no plastic reindeer, no poinsettias or holly.
My childhood was spent amid the garish frenzy of American pre-Xmas materialism, and by contrast, I find all this quiet soothing. This is not a time of year for extended shopping hours. As the days grow cooler and the nights grow longer, people naturally retreat inward and homeward. In fact, the mitzvah of Chanukah is defined by the Sages simply as ner, ish, u'beito: a candle, a person, and his home. Nothing fancy, nothing extra -- just a few tiny flames glowing in the window. In a world that thrives on flashy externals, Chanukah focuses our attention inwards, urging us to purify ourselves so that the flame we shine into the world will be strong and bright.
Many years ago, before I abandoned my valiant attempts to fit into American culture, I lived in a college co-op. My housemates were interesting, unkempt characters -- certainly not the mainstream students at my elite university -- and I enjoyed their energy and offbeat activism. Our ranks included a history major who had taught indigenous children on a South American women's collective, miscellaneous actors and artists, and the inevitable corps of tie-dyed, patchouli-scented drummers who spent their days playing African rhythms on the front porch. Each of us had our own passion, and we were all going to change the world in one way or another.
One winter evening after dinner, several of us were hanging out on the couches in the living room, enjoying the camaraderie. It was the middle of Chanukah, and this fact somehow worked its way into the conversation. "Let's light candles!" an enthusiastic voice suggested, and a flurry of activity quickly filled the room.
Lighting Chanukah candles gripped us with a fervor usually reserved for more important causes, like banning tuna fish from our vegetarian communal kitchen.
Someone remembered she had a menorah in her room and ran upstairs to get it. Others busily began carving makeshift candleholders out of potatoes. Charged with purpose, we hollered around excitedly for others to join us. Soon the coffee table was spread with aluminum foil and our eclectic array of menorahs was arranged on top.
Something about this simple ritual of lighting Chanukah candles, although pertaining to the taboo class of "organized religion," had gripped us with a fervor usually reserved for more important causes, like banning tuna fish from our vegetarian communal kitchen. We shut off the lights, eager to begin.
With happy anticipation and a bit of nervous laughter, a few dozen college students committed to changing the status quo gathered around the table to recite half-remembered blessings from Hebrew School.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe,
Who has sanctified us with His commandments
and has commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe,
Who made miracles for our forefathers, in those days at this season.
By candlelight, we all seemed different. Amidst the flickering candles, our earnest, socially-conscious activism was gradually replaced by a different quality -- something quiet and deep. Light shone off our faces. You could almost touch the silence.
What had begun as lighthearted entertainment ended in astonishment: Three-quarters of the house was Jewish, and none of us had ever noticed before that evening.
Absorbed in the warmth of the moment, it took us a moment to realize that an unusually large number of us had known the words to those blessings. Shooting curious glances around the table, we began a mental tally of our housemates: Rosenberg, Kleinman, Cohen, Barsky, Kleinberg... What had begun as lighthearted entertainment ended in astonishment: Three-quarters of the house was Jewish, and none of us had ever noticed before that evening.
The Quiet Shift from Olive to Oil
Chanukah is the ultimate grassroots holiday. It celebrates the persistence and daring of a handful of guerrilla fighters, whose victory led to the downfall of the mighty Greek army and the triumph of good over evil. Although Judaism values taking action against injustice, the real power of Chanukah lies in its quietness.
Our modern-day celebrations of Chanukah focus primarily on oil. This means, on the most basic level, eight days of deep-frying everything we can. But oil teaches us something much more profound as well. External pressure brings out the most refined and clarified essence of the olive, raising it to a level far beyond natural expectations. From a hard, bitter fruit comes a golden liquid that can illuminate an entire room!
This transformation gets little fanfare. We see no reason to make a fuss over something so normal. But the quiet shift from olive to oil is actually the essence of Chanukah. In the times of the Maccabees, many Jews were seduced by the aesthetic temptations of Greek culture. The external pressure to conform was overwhelming. The Maccabee brothers, however, used that pressure as an opportunity to fiercely assert their inner essence. Driven by a burning focus on true values, every other consideration became irrelevant. Their society was the olive press; their response, the oil.
The story of Chanukah hinges on the silent strength it took to maintain their identity against such extraordinary odds.
Although the military victory was indeed a miracle, the war would not have been won without the brothers' uncompromising commitment to truth. The story of Chanukah hinges on the silent strength it took to maintain their identity against such extraordinary odds.
It was the quietness of Chanukah, not the story of the military triumph, that enabled my activist housemates and me to recognize the deeper level of connection that bound us together. In the penetrating stillness after candle lighting, our inner light was revealed, if only for a moment.
The light of Chanukah cuts through history, linking souls together, whether the spiritual battle is over idol worship or tuna fish. The message is the same: Remember who you are. Once we ignite that blazing consciousness, we can push away a world of darkness.