Chanukah in Jerusalem is much like Seattle. It is often dark, usually rainy, with gusts of wind that chill to the bone. Walking through the narrow passages of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City after sunset, the lights from the Chanukah candles flicker in windows or outside people’s doors—usually small flames in oil within a glass box to keep them lit—the damp stones set aglow. The tradition says we are to announce the miracle of Chanukah, and since historically people were coming home from the marketplace just after sunset, that became the time to display the candles.
Most of us know the legend of these lights—how an untrained band of farmers overcame the mighty Syrian army who sought to destroy Judaism. How one day’s worth of oil for the eternal light miraculously burned eight days. And so, we get to eat jelly doughnuts, latkes and anything else cooked in oil that tastes great but is terrible for our cholesterol levels.
Chanukah is actually a minor holiday, but symbolically, it is extremely powerful. It inspires us to believe in the power of light to drive out darkness. And that we can overcome tremendous odds with faith and dedication. This made me wonder: Do we really believe the oil miraculously burned for eight days? Or that the great Syrian army was defeated by farmers? Some would say they were extremists, not farmers. They certainly would not have seen themselves that way—people on the extremes rarely do.
Some of our stories play their part and we can let them go as we outgrow them. I’m thinking of the tooth fairy, Paul Bunyan and his blue ox (I’m from Minnesota), or that babies sleep peacefully through the night. But some legends are more important—even of biblical stature. These founding myths provide a way for us to organize and make sense of our lives, our world and so much of the chaos that surrounds us. These are communal stories—our founding narratives.
They provide a way to pass on our shared values to the next generation. They give us faith in institutions, community and people. When large enough, they even have the power to turn “you” and “me” into a collective “we.”
When these myths fall, they can pose an existential crisis, and depending on what we choose to do, it can also be a time of retreat into fear and suspicion or an opportunity for reflection, evolution and recreation.
As a country, we are living through a moment when our myths are under tremendous strain and are cracking at the foundation—many of our founding stories are being reconsidered or torn down. We need our collective stories whether they are true with a capital “T” or a lower case “t.” They create a gravitational pull for society and act like a shared compass bearing. Like all oral traditions, we also need to let them evolve so each generation can add its verse or accent to the narrative. We must let some fade while affirming others. This doesn’t make them less true. It makes them more alive.
Judaism, like the United States, is built on a foundation of legend and law. Just as our laws need to evolve so too with our legends. I don’t know the true origins of the Chanukah story, but I do know the power of the story. As we enter this new season of light, let’s remember the importance of our collective stories. Let’s not be afraid to expand on our stories and let them breathe. Like the light in the darkness, our stories are made more powerful when shared.
I don’t know what my ancestors were thinking when they arrived at Ellis Island nor do I know the time of year—perhaps it was during Chanukah. I imagine them looking up as their ship passed beneath the Statue of Liberty with her torch ablaze declaring to the universe that this is a country where people can overcome tremendous odds—where miracles happen.
As we light our candles and celebrate Chanukah this year, I imagine millions of lights flickering in the darkness, attesting to the power of our individual and collective stories, the faith of our ancestors and the immense power of “we.”