Torah | Chanukah flames reflect light of hope and rededication

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Genesis 37:1–40:23

Numbers 7:18–29

Amos 2:6–3:8

Chanukah starts on Saturday night, Dec. 8. In contrast to Pesach or Sukkot, the rituals of Chanukah are easy, accessible and filled with beauty. The word “Chanukah” means dedication. Our ancestors rededicated themselves to God, they reconsecrated their holy places, and they affirmed anew their connection to the land. They wrote a prayer recited over the candles that begins with the words, “These candles are holy and we may not use them in any way.”

That prayer sets an intention for the holiday that focuses us on gratitude and faith. The prayer itself is beautifully written, with 36 words symbolizing the 36 candles lit at Chanukah (the shamash is not counted) following the words “these candles.”

Each candle is a prayer, an intention, a hope. So I would like to share a few of my own hopes with you.

One intention: rededication and renewal of strength. In this season, the days grow darker. The external world brings out our own inner darkness. A person who lost loved ones years ago suddenly experiences the pain anew. Scar tissue is ripped aside and the wound, the pain of loss, reopens amid tears, cries and darkness. Someone who wrestles with depression suddenly finds himself sleepless in the dark, asleep in the light. The worries and thoughts cascade at 1, 2 in the morning. And in the daylight, there is only exhaustion and the tears that never come.

Yehoshua Starrett of the Breslov Institute says the following about Chanukah:

It is “a guiding light for people from all walks of life, from all eras in time, to see through the darkness of their personal lives and to become a part of history. It is encouragement for those who face insurmountable odds as a result of personal history … It is inspiration for us to be our own Maccabees in waging our inner battle. It is also the knowledge that God is with us, even when we lose the battle.”

A second intention: This story is about not only our personal dramas, but also our national dramas. The Jewish people have an abiding connection of hope to Israel. The hope is to have a place in which our values can be brought into the world anew. A mitzvah is the articulation of a value in this world. So building the State of Israel, bringing the values of the Jewish nation into the world, is the greatest mitzvah of all.

A final intention: At this time of year, we tell a story of heroism, of people who saw all that they cared about being discarded, of Judaism being lost in the grand sweep of Greek cultural and spiritual hegemony. And in the face of this hopeless, sweeping, overpowering move of history, they said: No.

So it is for us also. With the darkness outside, it is easy to forget the hope within the human soul. It is easy to look at the despair and nihilism around us and give up on faith. It is easy to look at a culture that leaves little space for spiritual growth or Jewish living and give in to a frenetic busyness. Chanukah says: No.

We light these candles, these 36 candles, knowing that light can be found in the darkness as long as there are people ready to strike a match. We know hope can never be entirely lost as long as there are people ready to fill their own homes and souls with these flames kindled in symbols.

These candles invite us to find ways of connecting with our values and discovering or rediscovering mitzvot, specific behaviors, that bring those values into the world. We often fail to do so, either out of hypocrisy or laziness. Chanukah is a time to rededicate ourselves and to bring the light of our own actions into the world.

These candles indeed are holy. We have no permission to use them but rather only to be touched, inspired and healed by them. May their light remind us of hope in the darkness and may they remind us of our love for Israel. As we gaze upon these lights, may we dedicate ourselves to seeing in their light our own deepest values and then finding ways to bring those values into the world.

Rabbi David Booth
is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. He can be reached at [email protected].