Last week, on a drive out to Tzomet HaGush to buy Hanukkah supplies: candles, oil, and wicks, I noticed something mind-blowing. Next to the turn, a big sign screamed: “Sukkot for Sale!”
With regular life on hold, nobody had ever bothered to take down this irrelevant holiday sign. Or maybe it was left up on purpose. Who knows?
There’s a strange dissonance about the arrival of the holiday of Hanukkah this year. Since Shmini Atzeret, our nation has been completely absorbed in the events of October 7th and their consequences. Progress is at a standstill. Time has taken on a new tempo, naturally moving forward while we remain mentally on hold.
But as we enter the Holiday of Light, still in the midst of the darkness of war, many of us are left spiritually confused. How can we understand the Hanukkah holiday in this new context, when we are still reeling from the fresh blows of Shmini Atzeret?
Hanukkah and Shmini Atzeret seem like two completely dissimilar holidays, but there is a bridge that connects the two: Sukkot, culminating in Shmini Atzeret, the “eighth day,” is the only holiday that truly parallels Hanukkah in its time frame. During the eight days of Hanukkah 2023, we can reflect anew on the events of the last two months. We can use this holiday as another lens with which to view our circumstance. Perceived together, the themes of the two Jewish holidays intertwine to form a new and beautiful idea.
Shmini Atzeret is a bit of a wild card holiday – it seems to have little biblical relevance in contrast to the rest of Sukkot. There is a well-known Rashi that uses a Gemara to explain one of the themes of the holiday: for seven days of Sukkot, the Jewish people reside in the metaphorical shelter of God, the sukkah, after drawing close during the High Holidays. But on the last day, Shmini Atzeret, we get ready to leave the intense spiritual focus of the holiday season and return to regular life. Rashi compares the feelings that God might experience on this day to the experience of a father whose son is about to leave home after a large, multi-day gathering. The father is pained by the thought of his son’s absence. All he desires is one more day with his son, just the two of them alone. The Hebrew words used to express this sentiment are Kashah Alay Praydatcha, “Your absence is difficult for me.”
Kashah Alay Praydatcha.
Is there any more fitting description for the feelings experienced by the Jewish people since October 7th? On that day, during a holiday that was supposed to be the culmination of a closeness for our people, God hid His presence, allowing us to be horrifically attacked by our enemies. It felt like an abandonment by God. On the very same day, our sons, husbands, and loved ones were torn away into the danger of a war zone. 1,200 Jews were murdered. Almost 250 were kidnapped. Our feelings following this Shmini Atzeret were ones of pain, fear, and worry. We craved the closeness of God, the presence of our loved ones, and the safety of the communities of the south that we thought we possessed only days before.
Strangely, the major theme of Hanukkah is also reminiscent of current events. Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates a Jewish war, and our miraculous success in battle against the Seleucid Greeks. Studying the songs of Hanukkah, Maoz Tzur and Al HaNisim, we see that our enemies Nikbetzu Alay, gathered around us, and Fartzu Chomot Migdalay, they destroyed the towers of our walls. On October 7th, Hamas breached our walls, invaded our army bases and towns, and launched a successful attack within Israel. Perhaps most distressing, this happened on the very same day that we had gathered to celebrate God’s Torah and the many blessings contained within. In shul between sirens, we read the blessing of Moshe to the tribe of Naftali – “You will inherit the coast and the south.” These verses rang in our ears as we were attacked from the coast and the south of Israel.
The natural reaction to events like this, at a time like this, is to feel abandoned by God. How could He let this happen to the Jews, His most beloved people, in His treasured Land? After a month of intense prayer and closeness, how could He leave us during our time of greatest need?
But the very same songs of Hanukkah offer an answer to this question. There will be war and we will have enemies. But throughout it all, God stands with us. He is our salvation and protector. From the Exodus to Purim to the miracle of Hanukkah, God fought with us in battles of the few against the many again and again. He has always carried us through.
Throughout our holy books, we can read of instances when God turned away from us, if even for a moment. In Yeshayahu it is written “B’Rega Katon Azavtich” For a small moment I left you. But those very same verses go on to describe God’s everlasting love for his people, his eternal desire to cherish us, Bchesed Olam Richamtich. The same God who must leave us will always come back.
As we read in the Torah reading on that fateful Shmini Atzeret, we are an Am Nosha B’Hashem, a nation whose salvation is God. Even during the darkest times, we must turn to Him for protection. Our hope and prayer this Holiday of Light is that just as He did in the time of Hanukkah, God will perform miracles for His people. God will drive away the darkness.
This year, when we light the Hanukkah candles and sing, may we be inspired anew. God is our Maoz Tzur, our Strength and our Rock. Just as he brought his children home to Jerusalem and the Holy Temple at the time of the Hanukkah miracle, He will stand alongside us and fight for His people. He will bring His children home. When we feel the pain of absence, from our sons, our brothers and sisters held captive in Gaza, the message of Hanukkah is that we must have faith.
May God perform miracles for our sake this Hanukkah, as He has so many times throughout history. May these eight days of Hanukkah bring salvation and justice to the Jewish people for tragedies that unfolded on the eighth day of Sukkot.