Chanukah 2021: Lights in the Darkness

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.