As somebody who grew up in the Southern Hemisphere, the wintery nature of Chanukah used to elude me. During my childhood, Christmas fell in summer, and people celebrated it with open air barbecues and outings to the beach. We had our fair share of snowy Santa Clauses dispatched by department stores and charities, but they tended to gradually melt until becoming red and white puddles on the boiling pavement. For Jewish Day School students, Chanukah usually fell outside of the school year and was celebrated by youth movements and summer camps with sports jousts that reminded more of the Greek foes than of the Maccabean liberators.
It was when I moved to the northern hemisphere that I understood the deep anthropological importance of winter holidays. Virtually every culture has a winter holiday, and almost all of them have the celebration of light as its major component. Ancient Romans celebrated the “Saturnalia” and the “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti,” "the birthday of the Unconquered Sun" on December 25th (probably a date later commandeered by the Church to celebrate the birth of Jesus). Germanic and Scandinavian tribes celebrate the “Yule log” on the winter solstice and even the Incas of the Andes celebrated the “Inti Raymi,” the holiday of the sun, precisely when the sun was less visible and the days darkest.
Winter brings short days and obscurity, and that seems to rouse the innate fear of darkness that is hardwired in the human psyche. We then seek the comfort and the warmth of light, and want to be reassured that the sun hasn’t completely abandoned us. In the Jewish tradition, the fear of darkness is also present. In a beautiful Midrash, the first man experiences his first winter and sees with panic that light is receding and nights are lengthening. He fears that the world is descending into its original state of chaos and darkness. Desperate, he tries everything to make the darkness retreat. He shouts, hits the darkness with clubs, but everything fails. When the days are at their shortest length, he finally tries lighting torches and, relieved, sees darkness recede.
This Chanukah finds us in a world that seems to be sinking into chaos and darkness. War, terror and economic uncertainty seem to be endemic. We’ve witnessed the resurgence of the scourge of anti-Semitism and the curse of extremism in our own ranks. Beheadings posted on YouTube and the relentless destruction of our planet chill us. As I write these lines, 120 children lie butchered by fanatics in Pakistan. I rest my case.
And yet, in the midst of this thick and slimy darkness we celebrate the miracle of light. There’s a parallel in Chanukah between the physical darkness of winter and the gloom of tyranny and oppression. We celebrate two miracles that are one: the victory of good over evil, the triumph of light over darkness. Chanukah is the story of a people obsessed by light and addicted to hope. In a way, it’s a condensed version of the history of the Jewish People that can be summarized in a single phrase: the victory of right over might.
Apparently, Adam was afraid of the dark, but I read that Midrash a little differently. What really terrifies Adam is his own impotence. He sees the descent of the world into darkness and he feels there’s nothing he can do to stem the tide of gloom. And then he lights candles. He discovers that he has the possibility of changing the world around him, of eradicating darkness. In his newly found agency lies his salvation, and ours.
Chanukah teaches us that darkness should not – cannot – be accepted stoically. It tells us that we are not to be mere bystanders while evil reigns. When everybody seems ready to jump off a cliff of despair, Chanukah commands us to embark in a quest for light. It tells us, as was inscribed in the banner of Judah Maccabee, that resisting oppression, barbarity and tyranny, is, for Jews, a moral and religious obligation.
And, in most cases, it doesn’t take much to fight darkness. It takes an act of kindness, a helping hand, a caring embrace and or a healing word. As Adam, we only need to realize that it’s enough to light a candle to start winning the battle. He realizes that even a little candle can drive away a lot of darkness.
As funders, we are called to be the holders of the ‘shamash’. We are the ones that can light candles of hope and bring healing to a fractured, darkening world. We are the ones that can build bridges instead of walls. We are the ones that can, with our generosity and our passion, bring warmth and light during the exile of the sun. As the shamash, we share the light, and we discover that our flame doesn’t diminish when we share it, rather the opposite, it increases.
In these wintery days, let us cuddle in the warmth of our kindness and let us bask in the light of our compassion. Let us share the light and spread the blessing of hope to a world in disarray; let us celebrate the countless little miracles that surround us, even in the midst of chaos; let us cherish that light in our hearts that can never be extinguished. Let us rejoice, because even when light seems lost, it’s just one little candle away.