In the cold, rainy final days of Kislev, when the the husks of pomegranates shrivel on the trees and the sun burnishes the grey sky into silver, I arrived in Israel: another immigrant, four generations after my great-grandparents immigrated to America and hoped that they would be the last ones to move.
Only a few days later, Chanukah began.
I didn’t plan my Chanukah aliyah; it was the product of flight schedules and missed phone calls, not any sense of poetry. In retrospect, however – with the perspective gained from eight days of singing in the streets and sufganiyot on every corner and candles that wink at one another from neighboring apartments – there is a beauty, a real serendipity, to this timing.
Every year, Chanukah suffers the indignity of being labeled “minor.” Perhaps this is chronological (Chanukah is among the more recent developments in the Jewish calendar, and its foundational saga takes place near the end of the canonical Jewish timeline); perhaps it is because Chanukah is rabbinic in origin and not explicitly sourced from the Torah, although there are a great many other rabbinic institutions that are valued as deeply as the Toraitic ones. More likely, when Chanukah is called minor or insignificant, it is in the service of larger complaints. “See how desperate Diaspora Jews are to assimilate – that they obsess over this silly little holiday because of its proximity to Christmas!” runs the conservative argument. “See how materialistic and corrupt American culture has become – that it inflates this silly little holiday into an orgy of gifts and overfeeding!” goes the parallel liberal one. In both lines of thinking, there is an element of truth. But to treat Chanukah as a mere pawn in the rant of one’s choice, to see it as a symptom of decay and not an episode of extraordinary meaning and loveliness in its own right, is to lose out on a great story.
Well, two stories, really. There is the miracle of the light, reenacted ritually in Jewish windows every year, in which a single night’s worth of oil transcended nature and lit up the darkness for eight whole nights. And there is the broader miracle, in which human beings played a more explicit part: the miracle of the Maccabees’ military victory, the return of Jewish sovereignty and self-government in the Land of Israel, and with it the rededication of the desecrated temple. Technically, although the former miracle gets more press, it is the latter miracle that inspired the rabbis to institute the holiday. But it seems clear to me that the two miracles are inseparable from one another. Alongside human strategy and effort and military might, there is God’s superhuman, supernatural hand; alongside the big miracles of changing history, there are the little miracles of everyday wonder.
But I want to take it a step further: the very factors that might push us to call Chanukah insignificant actually contribute to its significance. Chanukah does come late in the timeline, after the days of revelation, exodus, and prophecy. It takes place in a broken world, and it is executed by broken people through deeply human means. History, which reveals the Maccabees’ Hasmonean dynasty as fraught with corruption and incompetence, shows us that much. And yet, in the end, we were still blessed with a series of miracles; we continue to be blessed with such miracles, both on the macro-level of national autonomy and the micro-level of a warm apartment on a cold night. Our world can still host miracles, and our prayers and longings and contributions and ideals can still invite them.
So when I got my teudat zehut (my Israeli papers), the modernized language of the Tanach both unfamiliar and deeply familiar on my tongue, I thought about the great miracle of self-determination – even though the line was long and everything took twice the time it needed to. When I walked to the Kotel on my first day here, surrounded on all sides by Jerusalem stone that radiated like gold, I remembered the rediscovery of the abandoned Temple – even though sirens sounded in the distance, even though I wore a heavy coat as makeshift armor. And every night of Chanukah, as thousands of Israelis light up their streets and restaurants and batei midrash and homes with the winter lights of Kislev, every one of those little menorahs evokes the newly lit Menorah in the story: flames flickering in darkness, rekindled in hard times by old faith and ever-growing love.