Hanukkah is celebrated in the darkest time of the year. And this year, the darkness is more tangible than ever. Last week, I hugged a neighbor in the military cemetery, where we gathered to bury her beloved nephew. Yesterday, I stood by the same neighbor with a flag in my hand as we honored the funeral procession of yet another neighbor’s son. When will it end, how can we bear it, who will die next, who will be lost?
The questions haunt us. They weigh too much for us to hold. In this war, I feel as though our inner strength and resilience are the little jar of oil from the Hanukkah story. It’s not a small jar – we are stronger than we realized. But shouldn’t it be finite? Can we really keep on drawing from it? We feel it running out.
Each night, I light the candles, and this action has its own weight too, an invisible heft to it. Gone are the days when I lit the candles happily, blithely, celebrating an ancient miracle from the comfort of my warm and happy home. Now every candle is a choice, a conscious act of dedication: here I am, hineni, setting aside my dread and pain and mourning. Here I am, choosing to focus on adding light to this hurt world, instead.
At such times, it helps me to remember that Hanukkah itself doesn’t commemorate the glorious and final victory that our children learn about in gan. The miracle we remember took place in the middle of the Maccabees’ campaign to rid Judea from its oppressors.
They could well have decided to wait and renew the worship in the Temple only after the final victory, just as they could have decided to wait until they had enough oil to light the menorah for more than a day. But they chose to grab the opportunity to do something right, even if it wasn’t perfect. They chose to heal what they could and add whatever light was within their means in that moment of incompleteness and confusion. And from that decision, Hanukkah was born.
I light each candle, every night, into a world rife with dread and questions and confusion. I know that anything can happen, and there is no certainty to promise solace up ahead. But at least I know that in each island of a moment, I, like the Maccabees, make the choice to light a light.
* * *
But what does it mean, to light a light today? And how long can I keep on doing it, when my own internal jar of strength and fortitude is running dry?
One answer comes to me when I read the parsha, the weekly Torah portion. Last week’s parsha, Vayeshev, left us in a place of devastation: Joseph forgotten and languishing in prison, Judah in disgrace, Jacob in deep mourning, his family in disarray.
The upcoming Miketz offers us hope, even though it doesn’t offer certainty. Much like the Hanukkah story, it captures the moment when healing becomes possible, but might well still collapse. Joseph is the viceroy of Egypt, and his brothers are there, and he isn’t indifferent. We don’t know yet what he plans to do to them and about them, but maybe, just maybe, a reconciliation is not beyond all hope?
This hope is tenuous. The situation between Joseph and his brothers can still get worst instead of better. But one thing feeds our hope at the very outset of the first meeting between these long-estranged and altered brothers. When Joseph saw his brothers, he didn’t ignore them. He “recognized his brothers,” even though “they did not recognize him.” (Genesis 24:8)
Rashi suggests that this verse captures more than technical recognition. It’s not as if Joseph was likely to forget the people who grew up by his side and sold him into slavery. Rather, the verse means that Joseph recognizes his brothers as his brothers, and therefore as worthy of compassion. He sees them not as his adversaries, or objects of revenge for him, but as fellow humans, fellow brothers, people he should care about, no matter what.
At a later point in the parasha, the brothers lament their own failure to extend just such recognition to their little brother Joseph. Imprisoned and afraid, they recall how they saw their brother in his hour of pain in the pit and remained unmoved.
Remarkably, they don’t blame their current suffering on what they did – selling their brother into slavery – but on what they failed to do. They regret the emotional withdrawal that enabled their transgression, the moment when they failed to hear, to recognize, their brother’s pain.
It’s hard for me to feel hopeful right now, as we bury our fallen. It’s hard for me to dredge yet more forbearance from the little jar of resilience in my soul. But even in my most pained moments, I can feel compassion. I can recognize other people’s suffering, I can care. And maybe this compassion is the answer to my questions.
Maybe we don’t need to find more strength within us, but rather follow our impulse of compassion out of our own despair and pain and feeling of depletion, follow it all the way beyond the limited and limiting boundaries of the self.
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On Sunday night, we lit four candles, and our menorah looked perfectly balanced – half lit, half dark. I looked at it and thought: the whole world seems to hang here in the balance. Will the light increase or recede tomorrow? Will we carry on fighting, or collapse under our collective pain?
Between the heroic stories happening in real life all around us and the dreaded “huttar le-pirsum” (it has been released for publication) lists of fallen soldiers every evening, will our inner strength run out or be extended like the oil in the jar?