Persephone was a unique goddess in Greek mythology. She lived an idyllic and lonely life in communion with Nature, far from the other gods and the endless intrigues of Zeus’ gang. The most eligible bachelors on Mt. Olympus, Apollo and Hermes, courted and wooed her to no avail. She preferred to spend her days picking wild flowers and nurturing the Earth. Hades, however—the wicked Greek god of the underworld—didn’t waste time on courtship. Instead of spending his drachmas on fancy dinners or expensive Olympian champagne, he simply opened a wedge in the Earth’s crust, emerged from his darkness, and forcefully abducted the beautiful Persephone. With Persephone gone, the Earth plunged into cold and darkness. The trees lost their leaves, flowers withered and died, and the land become bare and desolate. Humans were hungry and the gods sad.
The outcry on both Earth and Olympus was such that Zeus himself decided to intervene, and forced Hades to return Persephone. The sun and the Earth rejoiced, ushering in a season of warmth and renewal. However, Hades, mischievous as always, tricked Persephone into eating a few pomegranate seeds from his private garden. Having tasted the underworld, the beautiful goddess is condemned to return to Hades’ domain every year for a few months.
That’s how the ancient Greeks explained winter: light is sequestered, kidnapped by Hades every year. The “exile of light” is a cycle determined by the caprices of the gods, in which humans are just passive observers at best, and victims at worst.
It’s ironic to start a Hanukkah message with a tale from Greek mythology. After all, the Maccabees were fighting against the imposition of Hellenistic culture. But hey, we also celebrate the heritage of the Maccabees with the Maccabiah games, inspired by the Greek Olympiad, so I’m not the first offender!
More importantly, I wanted to start with this story because the ancient Greek myth refers to something universal about light, the central theme of Hanukkah. We all experience with angst the cyclical dimming of the world’s light in winter. The feeling of despondency that we feel when the world darkens is so pervasive that psychiatrists call it Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
But winter is also a metaphor: we feel that not just the seasons but also human history has its own cycles of light and darkness. The philosophers of the (aptly named) Enlightenment contributed to the modern idea of linear, endless progress. Human development, they thought, is an evolution in which reason will bring us to a more enlightened future. They believed that the “light of reason” took us out of the “Dark Ages” and guides us as we march confidently towards a better future.
History, however, has proven this to be mostly wishful thinking. It doesn’t matter how much we advance; we end up, like Persephone, returning regularly to darkness, as if in an inevitable cycle. Our previous sojourns in Hades’ dark underworld haven’t really taught us anything, so we plunge the world into cold and darkness time and again.
But Judaism was never comfortable with that vision of history. After all, we went to war with ancient Hellenizers to uphold a different idea of history and of human nature.
Yes, the world does descend regularly into darkness. Just open the newspaper and see; we are now in one of these times of history in which we seem to spiral downwards into a cone of blackness; a time in which we feel that all our evolution and progress has been halted and reversed; a time in which our march towards light has made a 180-degree turn to lead us straight into the heart of darkness. The light has been sequestered and it seems as if we have nothing to do but to wait for the miraculous liberation of Persephone. I, for one, am among the many sufferers of what I call “historical SAD”, the depression that comes from feeling that the world has gone into one its recurrent phases of intolerance, brutishness, and decay.
But one of the main lessons of Hanukkah is that we reject the inevitability of these cycles of gloom. The fight of the Maccabees teaches us not to passively accept the exile of light.
Like Hellenism, Judaism also has a concept of hidden light: “or haganuz,” a hidden light that illuminated the universe even before the sun was created. But there’s one crucial difference between or haganuz and the captured Persephone: human agency. In Judaism, we are not supposed to just wait for Zeus and Hades to sort it out. We can and must strive to recover that hidden light. We fight to bring it back into our lives and into the world. Like the Maccabees, we are called to be warriors of light. It doesn’t matter how daunting the battle looks. It doesn’t matter if we are just a little band of farmers against 80,000 trained Greek mercenaries. We simply can’t surrender to the seeming inevitability of darkness. Hanukkah teaches us that the cycle of 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, Hanukkah commands us to embark upon a quest for light.
And it doesn’t take much light to fight darkness; it is precisely in the darkness that our lights shine brightest. We can start with an act of kindness, a helping hand, a caring embrace, and a healing word. The fight for light is not only physical but also spiritual and moral. A passage in the Biblical prophet Zechariah that we read as the haftarah of Shabbat Hanukkah makes it clear: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.” The quest for light is not about fighting fire with fire, but about vanquishing darkness with light.
Even when the night seems long, we need to remember that dark nights have their purposes and meanings. We got our name—Israel—on a fateful night when our patriarch Jacob fought with an angel “until daylight broke”. And maybe it was his fight that brought back the light of day.
In these wintery days, let us find warmth in kindness and light in 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 find together that “hidden light” that can illuminate our noblest aspirations and our most compassionate hopes. Let us rejoice, because even when light seems lost, it’s always just one little candle away.