When the winter reaches its coldest and darkest days, we tap into the power of light and fire. The Ramchal, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (18th century) taught that each year when we return to a holiday, we “return to the original light” of that day in the annual cycle. In the springtime, light and life is increasing. We clean our homes and reenact our original story of liberation. In the Passover Seder, we tap into the original light of freedom. But in the wintertime, days are short, and it feels like the life force has gone into hiding somewhere underground or under layers of wool and fleece.
On the 25th, of Kislev we tap into the powerful energies of Hanukkah: victory through rebellion and the miraculous power of light. The Syrian-Greeks sought to erase our traditions so they could have control over the kingdom.
“In the era of the Second Temple, the Greek kingdom issued decrees against the Jewish people to nullify their faith by refusing to allow them to observe the Torah and mitzvot.” (Rambam Chanukah 3:1).
Although many Jews happily assimilated into Hellenic culture, the Maccabees formed a resistance against the mighty empire. A great miracle happened (nes gadol) when they defeated the Syrian-Greeks and rededicated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. As the Talmud recounts: “When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all of the oils. After the Hasmoneans [Maccabees] defeated them, they searched and found but one jar of pure oil, untouched and sealed with the sign of the High Priest. The jar had only enough oil for one day, but a miracle occurred and they were able to light from it for eight days.” (Shabbat 21b).
During all eight days of Hanukkah these lights are sacred and set apart. We are not to use the light for any normal purposes like reading or looking at presents. The great sages urged us to gaze at the candles in meditative contemplation to purify the oils burning in our hearts. Reb Zalman z”l taught “the candles are there to cleanse the doors of our perception so that we might again be attuned to the order of the miraculous. So we are taught that ‘…these candles and their light are sacred and we have no permission to make use of them. All we must do is to just look at them.’”
When darkness surrounds you, Hanukkah calls you to tap into your inner vision and there you will see a hidden light. The darkness is like rich fertile soil and on Hanukkah we plant seeds of hope and light. Each night as we increase the number of candles, I urge you to really gaze at the Hanukkah candles and meditate on them for as long as you can. Who knows, maybe a miracle will happen and you will find a spark of light that was hidden in a place you thought was completely dark. Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Festival of Lights!
AARON PHILMUS is rabbi of Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich.