Hanukkah: Bringing Light

Good morning!

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, the festival of lights, so let’s take a detour from our Torah readings for a Hanukkah thought or two.

Since we’re looking at the liturgical tradition this year, let’s see what the prayerbook has to say about Hanukkah. In the prayer which begins al ha’nissim, or “for the miracles,” which is a lengthy addition to the Amidah [standing prayer], we review the Hanukkah story, but with a decidedly theological perspective:

“. . . You gave the mighty into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few, and the defiled into the hands of the pure, and the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the malicious into the hands of those who engage in Your Torah. And You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your universe; and to Your nation, Israel, did You grant a great salvation and liberation . . . . ”  [translation taken from ou.org and full version here]

This version of the Hanukkah story has no little jar of oil, not much praise for the Maccabees, and pretty much says that the entire victory was a miracle from the Holy One. In this version of the story, Hanukkah is a remembrance of miracles that God did for us, and our response is thanks and praise.

That’s one perspective on the religious meaning of Hanukkah. Another perspective comes from the Torah portions we read every day of the holiday, taken from Bamidbar/ Numbers, chapter 7. This is the story of the dedication of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary, in the days of Moshe, and what makes this story unusual is its repetition of the accounting of each gift that each prince brought on behalf of each tribe of Israel. The gifts were all equal, and the Torah goes out of its way to list each one separately, even though we can see that each prince brought the same set of dedication presents on behalf of his tribe.

To me, there’s an interesting tension between al ha’nissim and the Torah readings: the text from the siddur is all about what God did for us, and the text from the Torah is all about what we bring to God. I see the meaning of Hanukkah as the creative space between two basic religious orientations: the first being awareness and gratitude for wondrous things in our world, and the second being our response to that wonder, which is a bringing of the self into constantly increasing mindfulness of our obligations towards others and the world. To put it another way, if Hanukkah was only about remembering the military victory of our ancestors, it might be important, but it wouldn’t be a sacred practice; if it were only about gratitude for miracles, it would teach a spiritual and moral passivity that is the very opposite of the qualities we admire in the Maccabees.

Hence, the symbol of light, which is something we create, and yet reflects back to us the possibility of a transcendent experience. We bring the Hanukkah lights, and yet, like the gifts for the Mishkan, they point us to something beyond mundane concerns, an aspect of the Sacred which we can draw upon as we rededicate not a place, but ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom and happy Hanukkah,


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