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The Power of Hanukkah

12/01/2022 09:48:00 AM


Rabbi Dan Feder

 “We came to banish the darkness
In our hands are the light and fire
Each one of us is a small light,
And together our light is power”

This is the message of the Israeli Chanukah song, Banu Choshech Legaresh. Every human soul brings a powerful light, and when we bring our lights together, their power can banish the dark. This is a strong and central message in our Jewish faith.

 Light is such a powerful symbol in Judaism. We light two candles every Friday night at sundown. We light memorial candles that burn a week when a loved one dies. We light a candle that burns for one day on the anniversary of their death. And we light a multi-wicked candle to conclude Shabbat.

The seven-branched menorah is one of the very oldest symbols of the Jewish people and comes from the Book of Numbers. Light is also a powerful symbol of creation and is the very first thing Adam did after the first sunset, he created a flame, and when we make Havdalah, it’s the very first act of creation in our week. It’s a sign of our productivity, of our capacity to create something that illuminates—the space we inhabit, but also the space in our hearts. It’s a step of affirmation, of hope, of intent.

All of this is wrapped into our celebration of Chanukah — beginning later this month on Sunday night, December 18 — when we light an ascending number of candles to celebrate God’s deliverance of the miracle of the one kosher jar of oil that lasted an entire eight days.

And so it is, every year, when the nights are darkest, when the days are shortest, and in the cycle of the moon the moon is least bright, we celebrate the festival of lights — our celebration of all that is possible.
Dr. Mark Washofsky, professor at Hebrew Union College, teaches that in our annual celebration of Chanukah, we commemorate the following: the refusal of our ancestors to submit to the religious demands of an idolatrous empire. The struggle against losing our Jewish identities. The fight for Jewish autonomy and self-determination. Chanukah means dedication, and it’s the festival where Jews the world over rededicate themselves to the tasks of standing against those forces that would efface our Judaism and to keeping alive the flame of Jewish religion, culture, and nationhood, so that it may be passed on to another generation.
Chanukah celebrates the original dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the chanukat habayit, after the Greeks defiled it and occupied the holy site. According to the rabbis, the Shechinah, God’s divine presence, dwelled on earth from the beginning of time, but when the first human generations sinned, corrupting the world, the Shechinah departed from earth and ascended to heaven. It was only the actions of righteous generations that brought the Shechinah back to us, a work culminating the dedication of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, God’s dwelling place in the desert, the one that served as the model for the Temple in later times. When we celebrate Chanukah and commemorate the rededication of the Temple, the chanukat habayit, we remind ourselves to build lives and communities that are worthy of serving as dwelling places for the presence of God.
As we begin Chanukah, we are no doubt aware of darkness in the world. The startling increase in antisemitic incidents in our country are unsettling. While we need to be vigilant in the struggle against antisemitism, we also need to take these words from our country’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, to heart: “Jewish tradition in all its manifestations – religious, secular, intellectual, communal, artistic, and so much more — is far too valuable to be tossed aside and replaced with a singular concentration on the fight against hatred.”

Last month, Reverend Dr. Graham Baird, lead Pastor of burlpres church (First Presbyterian Church Burlingame), spoke from our bimah and delivered a talk entitled “Sh’ma: What Christian’s Need to HEAR About Antisemitism and This Current Moment in American History,” in front of our congregation and supporters from his church who wanted to stand with their leader with the Jewish community. He shared the message of how important it was for Christians to recognize their personal and historical connections to Judaism, to speak out against those who say antisemitic things, and to speak out against injustices to the Jewish community. His words were a beautiful message of solidarity and a source of great light in a time of darkness.

So, when we gather this week to celebrate Chanukah, we are really creating powerful light for the spirit. As the old Zionist Hanukkah song Anu Nosim Lapidim reminds us:

“We carry our torches
In darkest depths of night.
The paths beneath our feet are bright.
Anyone who has a heart
Which for light is parched
Should lift up to us his eyes and heart.
Join us, towards the light!” 

Mon, April 22 2024 14 Nisan 5784