Hannukah is a holiday of many layers and stories. The ancient Book of Maccabees tells us a Hannukah story about a band of heroes (the Maccabees) who defied the oppressive Greek empire when they attempted to force the Jews to abandon their faith. Somehow, this tiny band of fighters prevailed, the Jews regained control of their sacred Temple and autonomy in their land. But the war and the Greeks had done considerable damage. After the victory, the Maccabees had a lot of clean up to do in the Temple sanctuary, which had been seriously defiled. This “rededication” of the Temple is actually the true meaning of the word, Hannukah.
The Rabbis, who inherited the book of Maccabees and the leadership of the Jewish people many generations later, added a new layer to the Hannukah story. Rather than emphasizing the story of the battle of the few against the many, they told the story of a miracle of light.
According to the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), when the Maccabees went to rededicate the Temple, they had a problem. One of the most sacred fixtures of the Temple was something called the eternal light, a light that was never supposed to go out (Leviticus 6:6). They found among the rubble a single vessel of oil to keep that fire burning – enough for one day. But it would take another 8 days to produce a new batch of oil to replenish it.
Things looked bad. I imagine that there may have been some who said it wasn’t worth lighting that fire, using that oil. It could never be enough. Time to give up. But somehow, hope prevailed and they lit the lamp anyway. Even though they couldn’t see how it was possible. They used that last bit of oil and gave everything they had, and then a miracle happened. The light lasted not just one, but eight days and nights, enough for them to produce a supply to keep the fire going long into the future.
Each year on the anniversary of these miracles we light the Hannukah menorah, the Hannukiah, to remember both of these stories. And it’s no coincidence that we tell these stories and light these lights, right at the darkest time of the year. All around us, darkness seems to grow. Days get shorter. Nights get longer. And that’s just the darkness in our physical world. …
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about darkness. Physical darkness. Political darkness. Spiritual darkness. And light.
Light – if you might recall – was the first Creation. Genesis 1:3 – “God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light. God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light, Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening, and there was morning – a first day.”
“But wait!” you may say, if you remember what happened next, “How could there be an evening and a morning yet? The sun, moon and stars weren’t created till the 4th day! What is the meaning of the term, “day” without the sun? What could “light” even mean if it isn’t light as we know it on our planet?”
If you were to say this, you would be on to something.
The rabbis of old may not have been astro-physicists, but they were close readers of the Torah and they too wondered what this original ‘light’ might have been if it wasn’t the light of the sun. Their answers are found in a literary genre known as Midrash, as well as mystical texts such as the Zohar, which tell us that this original primordial light was not just light as we know it. It was a powerful supernal light that illuminated the vision of the first human being before the fall. Adam could see from one end of the earth to the other and from one end of eternity to the other.
But when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, God became afraid that they might misuse the power of the Great Light, and so it was hidden away until the end of days as a gift for the righteous in the world to come. As it is written in Psalm 97, Or Zarua Latzadik, the light is sown for the righteous.
In one rather obscure chain of midrash and mystical texts, the secret light is hidden in a jewel called the Tzohar, which is passed from Adam all the way through the generations to Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses, who takes it to hang in the sanctuary as the first Ner Tamid, the first eternal light.
And if you are thinking – hey that sounds familiar. Yes, it’s the same eternal light that was at the center of the Hannukah story. It’s also the same eternal light that is a standard fixture in every synagogue. Now, I can’t promise you that the one in our sanctuary was lit from the fires of the first original light of creation, but …symbolically….
You see, it’s not just that a sanctuary needs A Light. It needs an “eternal” light. One that never goes out. One that passes through generations , connecting what we’re doing now to the distant past and future, from the very origin of Being to the World to come. The eternal light reminds us of the light of goodness and holiness that outlives any single human being.
And I would argue, the Ner Tamid is not only a reminder of goodness and holiness out there in some perfect past or perfect future. The great secret is – that hidden light is hidden within us. The Ner Tamid is a reminder of who we really are. Proverbs 20:27 tells us, “Ner Adonai Nishmat Adam” — the candle of God is the human soul.
It’s a radical idea, really. God is not just our light. We are God’s light.
I think this is one of the great lessons of Hannukah. Hannukah may fall every year when the nights are longest, but on Hannukah we don’t just sit around in the dark waiting for a miracle. We light candles. One by one. We fight back. Even against all odds. And it may not be possible to see exactly how that bottle of oil is going to be enough, but on Hannukah we take those first steps towards redemption from wherever we are – even in the darkest of places.
If where we are is a desecrated altar and a single jar of oil, we go ahead and light it anyway and trust that God will meet us half way. We take the steps we can. Hannukah teaches us that it is worth it. In the famous words of Pirke Avot, Lo alecha hamelakha ligmor…. It is not up to you to finish the work, velo atah ben horin lehibatel mimenu – but neither are you free to desist from it.
So. If you find yourself or your community or your country or your world in some kind of darkness, you don’t have to rededicate the Temple all by yourself – but you do have to find your own way to participate. Each year we teach ourselves through the lighting of the candles, do not despair. Do not despair. The light is coming. Do not despair. Find your way. Find your candle. Even one candle can fill a room with light. Each night, the light will grow. As Mary Oliver reminds us in her poem, “The Buddha’s Last Instruction,” now is the time to ‘make of yourself a light.’