Ok. Let’s get the small print done first. Hanukkah is not a big deal. Our tradition deems it a minor, or lesser festival. There are some special prayers added to the liturgy, there is the lighting of the menorah, and… well, that’s about it. It’s not a major festival, when we cease from working and behave as we would on Shabbat.
And yes, undoubtedly, the proximity of Hanukkah to Christmas has created a competition for Jewish families to do something bigger than our tradition dictates. Gift giving on Hanukkah is largely an American phenomenon that the baby boomer generation was the first to cash in on… literally. How many Jewish kids grew up with the counter narrative to a Christmas tree, that instead of one day of presents we get eight crazy nights???
I could give you a hundred compelling, rational reasons for a modified bah, humbug approach to the Festival of Lights. Only, here’s the thing. I love Hanukkah. And not just for the obvious reasons, like 1. Presents. 2. Latkes. 3. More latkes. 4. Family time. 5. The beauty of the candles. If that were it: dayenu! It would be enough.
But wait; there’s more. And this year it is particularly so. Because for many of us, the darkness has been thick and difficult to navigate. One of the ten plagues that ultimately led the Pharaoh to let our people go was darkness. The rabbis said that the worst part of it was that the darkness was impenetrable. No light could pierce the thick night. The Egyptians could not locate themselves in space, for they could see nothing. So they stumbled and fell, overcome with dread and fear.
The Israelites were in darkness, too. What some of them had – not all of them, it’s true – was hope. Some of them realized that they were poised on the threshold of a new life in a new land. They were able to envision something more than the darkness in which they found themselves.
The hope our ancestors held onto in the Egyptian darkness lit up the gloom. This light guided them to await new possibilities, to prepare for unimaginable vistas and take on extraordinary challenges. This light, this hope, was and is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.
I love Hanukkah because it reminds me that there is light out there, illuminating a future filled with potential. To see it is to believe it, even when you’re standing in the dark. The indomitable spirit of the Jewish people is there in every moment any Jewish child has tremulously held a burning shamus for the first time, and lit a lamp or a flimsy wax candle. It’s there in the resolute decision of a lonely Jewish school kid, who in a vast sea of Christmas greetings and carols and colors says, “Actually, I celebrate Hanukkah; I’m Jewish.”
Hanukkah may be considered a minor festival on the Jewish calendar. But this year more than any in recent memory, I need more light. Thank God for Hanukkah, coming at just the right time to light the way through the darkness.