Image: The rabbi, on her scooter, enjoying the Chanukah lights outside her house. Yes, she knows this is a nontraditional display.
Chanukah arrives on the 25th of Kislev as always — this year, that’s Sunday evening, November 28, 2021.
I don’t know about you, but I approach this holiday season feeling rather beat-up and disillusioned. This has been a year of personal, medical and professional crises for me, set against the backdrop of general political unrest, rising antisemitism, climate change, and pandemic. Several individuals and institutions have disappointed me deeply and personally.
So why on earth would I want to bother with a minor holiday like Chanukah? What’s the point?
Chanukah is one of the Jewish holidays I call “National Holy Days.” That is, they memorialize historical events with complicated legacies, events that temper the idealism of the Fall and Spring Holy Days.
Chanukah reminds us that in the second century BCE, the Maccabees won their war against the Selucid Empire only to find that the Temple was filthy. Greeks and Greek-minded Jews had rendered just about everything in the Temple precincts traifeh [ritually unfit.] The Hasmoneans cleaned it up, and rededicated it (hence the name Chanukah, meaning dedication.) Their joy was so great that they instituted an eight-day festival to remember the occasion.
(Yes, there’s another story about a cruze of oil. For more about the tensions between the two stories, look at Chanukah: The Evolution of Holidays.)
Periodically the Jewish People disgrace ourselves with temptations from without and within. In the 2nd century BCE, we responded to Greek culture by dividing over it — the Maccabean war was not only a war against the Greeks, it was a civil war against Jews who admired the Greeks. We thought we cleaned up afterwards, only to find that the “pure” Hasmonean rulers were far from ideal, as well.
Welcome to imperfect humanity. All we can really do is dust ourselves off, clean up the mess, and rededicate ourselves to the project that is Torah. And that’s what I’m doing for the rest of 5782 — cleaning up the mess, and searching the tradition and my heart for genuine Torah.
10 thoughts on “Chanukah 2021: Lights in the Darkness”
It always comforts me to read your words, Rabbi. Thank you.
Beautiful light display. I also find small LED lights, such as you have on your tree, heartening. I hope you also have a kosher Chanukiah to make the blessings over.
I hear you about your social/political concerns. I am a second-year student at an anti-Semitic law school and this, in combination with the pandemic and the ugly national political scene, is just unbelievably painful.
May I ask a question? I studied for the Orthodox rabbinate in Monsey, NY, but I do not call myself a rabbi here in California because I am not a ‘pulpit rabbi,’ as I guess they are sometimes called here. My Bay Area friends said that, to Californians, a ‘rabbi’ is someone who ‘has a Synagogue,’ is a pulpit rabbi, and so I should not use a pronominal title lest I confuse people. Which makes sense, I guess, but this approach has left me without a niche, without a traditional way to make a difference in the Jewish (and non-Jewish) world. But I notice you seem to have found a way around this issue: You call yourself a community ‘teaching’ rabbi, and of course have chosen the name ‘Coffee Shop Rabbi,’ which works nicely. I like your approach. Do you have any other ideas that might work for someone in my shoes? Any advice?
OH, typo check: That should have been ‘pre-nominal,’ not ‘pronominal.’ – Ben
I do hope that you are staying close to home during this time of turmoil. May the lights of the Chanukah bring you comfort.
I am staying very close to home, and have since the beginning of the pandemic in March ’20. One of the issues at present is that due to eyesight problems, I can’t drive, an upside of which is that I am unlikely to catch Covid or anything else!
As we approach the conclusion of a difficult year for everyone, it is a small miracle that you found the strength to write this thoughtful essay. Thank you, RR. May you move from strength to strength!
Here’s a little piece on miracles that you might enjoy, published today in our local Jewish Chronicle and featuring yours truly…
Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh. I hope that if there’s something that any of us at Temple Sinai can do to help “clean up the mess”, you’ll let us know.
Richard, I am blessed to have Temple Sinai, Oakland, as my Jewish home base. The Sinai rabbis have been a considerable support for me this year.
thank you for sharing your thoughts Rabbi Ruth; many of us share some of those feelings and are at a loss, but like you, we know we need to persevere in teshuvah and tikkum olam. We know it’s an ongoing process but even so it’s hard sometimes to stay positive. Chag sameach 🙂
I think celebrating a “minor” holiday actually is the point this year. One of the messages of Chanuka is finding unexpected small miracles and that is something we need amidst the dark and gloom. Chag Sameach. Light up the night!