Sorry to break it to you, but Hanukkah is not that unique.
Almost every culture has a midwinter holiday in which light is the main protagonist. From the Norse Yule, to Christmas, to Diwali. It seems that, as the days shorten and the sun retreats, the fear of darkness inscribed in the human DNA takes over.
That fear is understandable from an evolutionary perspective: In the African savannah, predators are most active at night. Darkness brought danger, and light brought safety and relief. So deeply wired is that in our brains that, even now, millions of years later, the chirping of morning birds is a universally soothing sound – according to researchers, 24 percent more relaxing than the best meditation apps.
In winter, when songbirds make themselves scarce, humans need to be reassured that light will come back. Yule, the pagan Scandinavian winter festival, comes from the Norse word for “wheel,” emphasizing that the seasons are a cycle that repeats itself in an immutable cadence. Fear not, says Odin, spring will come back as it always does!
But despite the universality of this anxiety, there is a unique Jewish twist to our own midwinter holiday, and it goes deeper than the historical significance of Hanukkah and its relationship with the epic freedom fight of the Maccabees. It’s related to one of the most important philosophical underpinnings of Judaism: the idea of future.
The Talmudic debate between Hillel and Shammai (in Shabbat 21b:5) about how to light the Hanukkiah exemplifies that:
Beit Shammai says: On the first day one kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last day of Hanukkah, they kindle one light.
And Beit Hillel says: On the first day one kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases the number of lights until, on the last day, they kindle eight lights.
On the face of it, Shammai is right: If we remember the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days, the quantity diminished every day. And yet, the Halacha goes with Hillel, because one is supposed to always increase in holiness.
In other words, the Yule “wheel” doesn’t work for us, because we don’t expect a mere return of the light, we want an increase in light. We don’t want the future merely to replicate the past, but to improve on it: We are commanded to make it better, with more light, more holiness. Our golden age, the messianic age, is always in the future. This simple fact is probably one of the major innovations of Judaism: breaking from the cyclical time of paganism and viewing the future as something that can be different – and better – than the past. And it comes straight from the top: God Himself describes His essence in the future tense: “Eihe asher Eihe” (“I will be who I will be”), which means, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z’’l) aptly said, “I will enter history, and I will transform it.” God is not the guardian of an immutable cycle, but a transforming force – and so are we, who are made in God’s image.
The word “nostalgia” comes from the Greek, nostos (return) and algos (pain); it’s the pain of an impossible return to the past. Conversely, a focus on the future, and the belief in our agency to shape it, is a source of hope. That future orientation is therapeutic. The modern thinker who best articulated this notion was Viktor Frankl who, in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” tells how a positive vision of the future helped him endure the horrors of Auschwitz. In the camp, he observed that prisoners with things yet to achieve, those with more light in the future, were more likely to survive. While Freud tried to understand trauma by going back to the past, Frankl strived to overcome it by projecting people onto a brighter future and telling them that it was partly up to them to achieve it. In that, he was profoundly Jewish for our goal is not to return but to transform.
Rather than merely hoping for light, we are commanded to fight for it. In one of the most psychologically compelling stories of the Bible, Jacob spends a long, dark night fighting with an angel, “until light breaks.” The Patriarch, trying to come out of a long night of exile and facing a scary encounter with a resentful and violent brother, confronts adversity and his own demons — and fights them. In the darkness, he can’t see his enemy, but he wrestles through the night and prevails. Then, like in a modern vampire story, the angel begs “let me go, for dawn is breaking.” And then comes a wonderful twist in the story: not content with having beaten his enemy, Jacob says “I won’t let you go unless you bless me.” The angel’s blessing: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”
Jacob’s fight during darkness ends with a blessing of transformation. He emerges from that long night bruised, but a different person, a better person. Jacob will carry a scar -- the angel hurts his hip, as a permanent reminder of his struggle -- but that injury, like all those obtained in a fight for light, is a source of pride, not of shame.
This Hanukkah finds us, like Jacob, wrestling in the middle of a long night. We fight against an invisible enemy, a lethal virus, and its social and economic consequences, and we are still caught in our historical fights, against antisemitism, bigotry, and hatred. In this darkness, we are called, like Frankl, to see beyond the invisible horizon. Like Jacob, we are urged to continue striving until there’s daylight.
Confronted with this darkness, what will we do? Will we expect a return to an unaltered past, like in the Nordic Yule, or we’ll strive to become, like the patriarch, transformed and improved by the experience?
Jacob, the Maccabees, and Frankl emerged triumphant from the darkness. What they had in common was the ability to let themselves be transformed; not to lament but to fight; to imagine a different and a better future. Like them, we need to strive until daylight; and when dawn breaks, the fight continues: to bring about a new reality, one in which, like Hillel, we increase the light every day.