There are 20 shopping days left until Chanukah. Break out the dreidels and funky (or traditional) chanukiyot because it’s almost time to party. Chanukah is good fun. I mean, who doesn’t love doughnuts? And the message of light overpowering darkness and the rise of the underdog is universally inspiring.
After years of bingeing on latkes, I’ve had a Chanukah epiphany (oh — the irony of that expression). It’s taken me this long to click because I live in the southern hemisphere where we celebrate Chanukah in the tropical heat, often during summer vacation at the coast. My first white Chanukah was at age twenty. Everything that the mystics teach about how Chanukah is the one Jewish festival that occurs as the world gets colder and darker- was theoretical to me.
Ok, enough about why it took so long, let me get to what I realised.
One, you are meant to light the menorah after sunset. Two, Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday that starts after mid-month. Both of these facts highlight that Chanukah is a festival that waits for dark. Jews follow a lunar calendar because, like the Moon, our nation consistently waxes and wanes.
Our major holidays either happen at Full Moon, like Pesach and Sukkot or in the waxing phase, like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Shavuot. Even our minor holidays, like Tu Bishvat, Purim and Tu B’Av, are at full Moon. These dates mark bright times for us when our nation is on the up-and-up.
Chanukah is the opposite; it begins when the Moon is fading. Chanukah teaches that, no matter how cold or dark our world is, we can transform it.
Chanukah’s theme spills over into the entire month of Kislev, which becomes known as the month to transform darkness and adversity into light and opportunity.
Nice in theory.
So, does Chanukah suggest that we’re more powerful than G-d?
G-d’s original calendar had no Chanukah. He designed this time of the year to be cold and dark (at least in the northern hemisphere, where most Jews have lived for most of our history). What gives us the right to innovate a sparkling celebration at a time that G-d hadn’t designed for joy?
A Roman nobleman once levelled a similar accusation at Rabbi Akivah. “If G-d designed the human body, how dare the Jews choose to modify it through circumcision?”
This may well be one of Judaism’s most lingering philosophical conundrums. If you believe that G-d is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, how do you second guess His design or choices?
It’s a question we could level at Abraham, who challenged G-d’s choice to plan to destroy Sodom. We could ask the same of Moses, who threatened to quit his position when G-d suggested He might annihilate the Jews who had worshipped the Calf. This question reverberates across every rolling Tehillim-for-healing Whatsapp group. As people of faith, are we not meant to accept G-d’s decision, rather than pray for a different outcome?
Now, Chanukah has arguably become the most celebrated Jewish holiday. It makes sense. You don’t have to fast, read reams of Hebrew in Shul, eat in the rain or gnaw on baked cardboard. You can’t blame people for wanting in on the holiday that offers pocket money, cholesterol-laden snacks and family game night.
But, there’s more to Chanukah’s attraction than what meets the eye.
Kislev, Chanukah’s month was bland in G-d’s diary, yet is vibrant in ours. Like Rabbi Akivah told the Roman, “G-d creates wheat, but we make bread; He produces wool, but we fashion clothes”. After six days of creating everything, G-d invites us on board by telling us that He had created a world for us to repair.
The refrain of that Creation story is “and it was evening and then morning”. The mystics develop a principle from this: Darkness always precedes light. More correctly, G-d creates darkness and cold to allow us to learn to generate warmth and light.
Chanukah, and the entire month of Kislev, represent the credo of Judaism: Where you see darkness, cold, apathy or despair, recognise that G-d has empowered you to generate light, warmth and optimism.
Subconsciously, this is what attracts us all, religious or not, to Chanukah, perhaps more so this year, as we emerge from the Covid storm.