At the darkest time of the year, when the daylight hours are at their shortest and the cold has set in, as the moon gets smaller and smaller until it finally disappears, we go out at night and light our menorahs. According to Jewish custom, we also light our menorahs in a low place (under 3 ft.). One starts to see a pattern emerging, a confluence of darkness in both time and space. It is into this place, at this time, that we bring light.
In all of our lives we have times and places where the "darkness" seems to gather. One loses a loved one, a job, gets angry at their children (or spouse) for leaving their clothes on the floor. There is no lack of potentially dark moments in our lives. Even the "good" things have a "dark side" -- the stress of marrying off a child or attending a family gathering, the stress of moving to a new home, or the exhaustion that comes with having a newborn baby.
Chanukah teaches us powerful tools for bringing some light into the darkness.
1. Nature vs. miracle: A famous question is asked: Why do we celebrate the miracle of the burning oil for 8 days? Since there was enough oil to burn for one day, the first day wasn't a miracle at all, it was natural! Chanukah should be only seven days.
Not so. Who says that oil should burn at all? It is also miraculous! In reality, God's Hand is behind everything that happens. "Natural" means that we have become accustomed to expect that this is the way things should be. We can b ring more light into our lives by appreciating the miraculous nature of the world around us, and cultivate gratefulness for things we take for granted.
2. Greek vs. Torah sources of light: Greek philosophy praises aesthetics and appearances. A person's light comes from how they appear to the world. It's the externals that matter.
The Torah compares Jews to oil. That which is extracted from the inside is the source of light. The Greeks were the only conquerors of Israel who did not destroy the structure of The Temple. Instead they defiled all of the vessels inside. The message? The inside could be impure and rotten to the core; it's the outside appearance that matters.
The Torah's message is don't be fooled by appearances. We miss out on many wonderful opportunities and don't get to know many great people because we dismiss them based on a superficial impression.
3. Competitive vs. co-operative: In the Olympics, the one who wins gets the glory, and everyone else ends up as losers. The concept of the Olympics, introduced to the world by the Greeks, is of one man's battle to be the best in relation to everyone else. If he makes it, he goes down in the history books. If not, it was for nothing. The Olympic torch is passed from one person to the next. When holding the torch, one stands in illumination as the center of attention. The moment that he passes it on to someone else, he stands in darkness on the sideline.
This stands in sharp contrast to the Torah concept that every person has inherent value and a unique contribution to make. The light of the Chanukah candles is additive. When one candle lights another, its own light is not diminished in any way. Actually, the candle's ability to provide light is increased due to its cooperation with its mate. When we find our unique light and share it with the world, everyone wins.
4. Humility and self-confidence: When we find ourselves in a low place, we are faced with a choice: beat ourselves up for it, or get up determined to try to do better. Traditionally the menorah is lit below three feet, but above one foot. We sometimes find ourselves in low places. We can either bring light into that place and move forward, or drag ourselves into the dirt and beat ourselves up for it. Go for the light!
5. The same height: According to tradition, the eight lights of the menorah should be the same height. We all have our unique roles and light to shine into this world. It is very easy to look at one person's role as being more important than another's. When a little gasket in your car starts leaking, it can totally incapacitate your vehicle. This little piece may not be as glorious as the engine, but it is no less important to the operation of the vehicle. We may not all have high profile roles to fulfill in this world, but each and every one of us is unique and the world needs our unique light!
6. Sanctification of the new moon: One of the three decrees of the Greeks was to forbid Jews from sanctifying the new moon each month. The lunar cycle is the monthly sign of renewal. There are times when the moon is full and the nights seem bright. There are other times when the moon is absent and the darkness of night is very deep. One of the ways that people fall into despair is to lose hope when they find themselves in darkness. It will always be like this, we say to ourselves. It will never get better.
We all go through ups and downs. We are commanded to bless the moon when it first appears right after disappearing completely. What a wonderful message of faith to remember that even when it appears dark and all seems to be forsaken, the light will come back again. Hang in there.
7. Circumcision: Circumcision was another fundamental mitzvah prohibited by the Greeks. Greek philosophy holds nature to be not only unchangeable, but the ideal form. The Torah associates the number seven with nature. Circumcision, which is commanded to be preformed on the 8th day, is representative of a Jew's mission to take the nature that they were given in the world, and go beyond it to actively shape it for the better. We may come into the world with tendencies to be pessimistic, angry, impulsive, indulgent, lazy, or any of myriad "natures" that people have. Do we take the Greek approach and nurture our natures, or do we take the Torah approach and form our natures' to nurture us?
8. If the miracle that we celebrate during Chanukah is the re-dedication of the Temple and the lighting of the menorah, why do we always recount the story of the military victory of the Chashmonaim over the Greeks? While it is true that the goal of the Chanukah story was realized in the re-dedication of the Temple, there was a long and arduous battle to get there. A small band of Jews battled against impossible odds in order to realize this goal.
Our journeys may also seem impossible at times. The road may be long and exhausting. By learning the story of the military victory of Chanukah, we gain hope that against all odds, over long periods of time, with God's help one can come to achieve their goals.
These days there is plenty of darkness in the world. May we all merit taking the messages of Chanukah into our lives and bring more light into the world.