FLAMES OF HOPE
We are in the midst of the dark days of winter – but there is light just over the horizon: at the winter solstice, on the darkest day of the year, Brightonians will gather on the beach once more, with lanterns, to usher in the first glimmers of the longer days to come. And then, within a few days, the Christmas season will begin in earnest.
Winter solstice, Christmas, the Hindu festival of Diwali: Judaism also has a festival of lights in the winter, which begins on the 25th of the Hebrew moon or month of Kislev. The moon year being only 354 days long, the Hebrew calendar incorporates adjustments to ensure that the seasonal festivals do not fall out of season. This is accomplished by adding an extra month in the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th and 19th years of a 19 year cycle. This year the Jewish festival of lights begins at sunset on December 20th. Lasting for eight days, it centres on accumulating flames: lighting one candle – or wick floating in oil – on the first night; two flames on the second night; three on the third, and so on.
The name of this eight-day festival is Chanukkah, meaning, ‘dedication’. Like the majority of the Jewish festivals, Chanukkah has its origins in the history of the Jewish people, and recalls a victory over the oppressive Assyrian Greek Empire. It took 33 years to re-establish an independent Jewish nation, but along the way to this goal, in 164 BCE, a band of guerrilla fighters, known as the Maccabees, recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been turned into a pagan shrine. When they entered the Temple, they rebuilt and rededicated the sacred altar, and having missed the autumn festivals of Sukkot and Sh’mini Atzeret, which, together, last eight days , they then inaugurated a new eight-day festival of ‘dedication’.
These events are recorded in the Books of the Maccabees. But then another story emerged, which was related by the rabbis in the Talmud several hundred years later: When the victors went in search of oil to rekindle the M’norah, the seven-branched Temple lampstand, they found just one day’s supply of oil still bearing the seal of the High Priest. But then, a miracle happened, and the oil lasted for eight days.
So, on the one hand there is a political tale of persecution, rebellion, and triumph; and, on the other hand, a miracle… When Jews celebrate Chanukkah, in addition to kindling flames, it is also customary to eat doughnuts and potato latkes – because both are deep- fried in oil – and to play a game with a four-sided spinning top, known as a dreidel, which has a Hebrew letter on each side, denoting the key message of the festival: Neis Gadol Hayah Sham – ‘a great miracle happened there.’
Chanukkah is a time for family and fun, but, traditionally, it is a minor festival that has only become more important in response to the hype associated with Christmas, which has propelled Jewish parents to give presents to their children. But there are some positive reasons for elevating Chanukkah. As we survey the recent upheavals in the Arab world, Chanukkah holds out the hope that the oppressed will prevail. However, the victory of the persecuted is no guarantee that freedom will reign once the tyrants have been overthrown. The rabbis, who took responsibility for recreating Jewish life after the second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE and the priesthood was no more, did not want to glorify the Maccabees, who subsequently became corrupt when they achieved power. It was for this reason that the rabbis promoted the miracle story, recalling the words of Zechariah that, ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the God of hosts’ (4:6).
And so, the ‘miracle’ story has held sway to this day. But when Jews celebrate Chanukkah each year, adding flame after flame, night after night, we are also doing something else: keeping the flames of hope alive. Having endured domination by a succession of imperial overlords, from the Assyrians in 722 BCE, to the days of the Holy Roman Empire and beyond, and having been persecuted and massacred, again and again – not least, during the darkest of dark days of the Sho’ah (the Holocaust) – and survived, Chanukkah proclaims the triumph of the human spirit, which can never be extinguished. The late Rabbi Hugo Gryn, never forgot the Chanukkah he spent in Auschwitz: When his father insisted on using their meager margarine ration to kindle a flame, he protested. His father responded: ‘You and I had to go once for over a week without proper food and another time almost three days without water, but you cannot live for three minutes without hope!’
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah