This evening begins the fifth night of Hanukkah.
Many are celebrating with the giving of presents and the eating of latkes (or perhaps sufganiyot). Some are also enjoying the playing of dreidel. The tradition requires only the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah preceded by the appropriate blessings. The lights are placed in the window to proclaim the miracle of Hanukkah for all to see.
For centuries this holiday was downplayed. It was simple in its observance. Yet it was profound in its message. Hanukkah reminds us that hope is always possible. The lighting of the Hanukkah candles is about adding light during the darkest times of the year, and throughout the darkest moments of our history.
In the Talmud, two great rabbis argue about how best to light the Hanukkah lights. Rabbi Shammai believes that our ritual should mirror the actual miracle. Millennia ago after the Maccabees’ struggled with the Syrian Greeks and recaptured the Temple, their dedication ceremony was nearly stymied because of the lack of holy oil. Miraculously the oil lasted not the expected one night but eight. The light was therefore brighter on the first day when there was more oil. Shammai taught that we should therefore light eight candles on the first night and one on the last night. Hillel, with whom Jewish law later sided, argued that the lighting should reflect not what actually happened, but our hope in the future. With each passing night, the light should increase to illustrate that the future can always be brighter than the past.
Theodor Herzl, the architect of the modern Zionist movement, once wrote a story about Hanukkah, entitled “The Menorah”. He concluded:
There came the eighth day, on which the entire row of lights is kindled, including the faithful ninth candle, the shammash, which otherwise serves only to light the others. A great radiance shone forth from the menorah. The eyes of the children sparkled… The occasion became a parable for the enkindling of a whole nation. First one candle; it is still dark and the solitary light looks gloomy. Then it finds a companion, then another, and yet another. The darkness must retreat. The young and the poor are the first to see the light, then the others join in, all those who love justice, truth, liberty, progress, humanity and beauty. When all the candles are ablaze everyone must stop in amazement and rejoice at what has been wrought. And no office is more blessed than that of a servant of light.
Theodor Herzl died in 1904. The modern State of Israel was established in 1948.
That is what Hanukkah is all about. When the rest of the world says your dreams are delusions, when even friends decry your faith as fantasy, Hanukkah reminds us that the lights must always be kindled, that hope can still be ignited. Even during the darkest days of winter and even when nations seem again arrayed against us, there is light.
The future can indeed be brighter than the past.