A Ḥanukkah Journey (5781)


One: The First Light

The first day of Ḥanukkah is arguably the strangest. The story goes that we had enough oil for one night, but it miraculously lasted for eight. Doesn't that mean that there was no miracle on the first night? So why do we say the blessing שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמַן הַזֶּה (that God made miracles for our ancestors in that time, in this season)?

This year, I feel that I truly understand the miracle of the first night. Because this year, we are bringing light into the darkness of a long and exhausting crisis.

Sometimes, we can see today, and we cannot be sure that it is enough - that we are enough - for tomorrow. We feel extinguishable and exhaustible. We’ll flicker out before we make it.
And sometimes, we decide to light the Menorah anyway. We decide to try. That is the miracle of the first night - to try, against the odds, to bring light into the world. To accept that it might not be enough, and to do it anyway.

Two: Tablets of the Commandments

Actually, the story is even better than that. There are two sets of tablets of the Ten Sayings. The first set of tablets were famously shattered by Moses upon finding the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, and a second set had to be made.

The Torah does not directly speak about the fate of the fragmented remains, but the Talmud draws forth from the text that they were stored in the ark of the covenant with the whole tablets. In this holiest of Jewish spaces, brokenness and wholeness sit next to one another. Our tradition does not shy away from brokenness; we consider it to be a holy part of the human experience.

May this year teach us to be like Moses, lovingly collecting the broken shards along with the whole, and considering every moment holy.

Three: Stars in the Sky

We know that Shabbat is over by the appearance of three stars in the sky. It's only recently that I have realised how much religious observance ties us to the way of the world - even us bookish 'indoor Jews'.

Shabbat observance means that we know the timings for sunset and when it will be dark enough for three stars to appear in the sky. The habit of prayer means that we can look to the sun and figure out which direction is east. Rosh Chodesh, the festival marking the seams between the months, means that we can look to the crescent moon in the sky and clarify whether it is waxing or waning.

All this reading of books has allowed us to look up and read the sky.

Inner life and outer life are intrinsically and importantly connected. When we look inwards, to our own minds and souls and learning, we are also strengthening our ability to look outward to the world and feel connected to everything.

Four: Corners of the Earth

For thousands of years of history, Jews have been dispersed from the Holy Land to all four corners of the earth.

Our feelings about this are complicated. Some feel that being outside of the Holy Land naturally means being in exile (galut), which is inherently negative. Others feel that the diaspora is culturally rich and important to Jewish history. And many of us feel somewhere between those extremes, seeing the wonders of life outside of the ancestral homeland, and also the dangers therein.

Tonight, four lights will be shining from windows throughout the four corners of the world, publicising the miracles wrought to our ancestors. And as we walk through the whole earth, may our experiences and engagements serve to illuminate Jewish life, in the homeland and outside of it, for the years to come.

Five: Cups of Wine

But wait, aren't there four cups of wine - and isn't this the wrong time of year to be reflecting on them? Yes and no, on both accounts.

The fifth cup of wine at the seder is the Cup of Elijah. We drink four cups of wine to represent the four statements of redemption in the story - but there is a makhloket (disagreement) over a fifth statement. We include a fifth cup at the table to represent this fifth statement, and we dedicate it to the Prophet Elijah, who is said to herald the Messiah.

Passover and Ḥanukkah are both festivals in which we are obligated to tell stories of salvation. And thanks to these symbols and this storytelling, we have retained our narratives through thousands of years of history.

But these are not only stories of our past. They are also the stories of our hopes for the future. When we gaze at the light of the ḥanukiyyah, just as when we sit at the seder table, we are reminded that our tradition has great hope for the future and for healing.

May we see it in our days.

Six: Days of Work

One of the great loves of the Jewish people has always been Shabbat - the seventh day, in which we rest from creative labour. However, there are six days of work every week, and these too have intrinsic spiritual value.

If we understand Shabbat as being a reflection of the Divine resting from Creation, that means that our working weeks are a reflection of the Divine creating the world. Every act of labour - writing letters, cooking, carrying in the public domain - is an act of power over the world. Every act changes the world.

I have long felt that 'holy days' are really about 'regular days'. How does the festival change us? How does it affect our views on human power, on divine love, on forgiveness, on the world? Shabbat done well can lead to a working week filled with rich understanding of the scope of human power.

How can this Ḥanukkah usher us into a better world, after the candles are no longer lit in our windows?

Seven: Straps of Tefillin

We are commanded in the Torah to bind the words of the Divine on our hands and between our eyes. We fulfil this mitzvah through the practice of tefillin - black boxes containing parchment with words of Torah, which we strap to ourselves during weekday morning services. In the final stages of winding the tefillin straps around the fingers, we recite this phrase from the Book of Hosea (2:21-22):

'I will betroth you to Me forever; I will betroth you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness, and with compassion; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Eternal.'

These beautiful words illustrate the covenant between God and Israel as a marriage ceremony, renewed every weekday morning through the act of wrapping ourselves in the words of Torah.

Our ritual practices are often highly physical. We like to use our senses in ritual obligations, in hopes that through repetition and physicality, we can awaken our souls.

When I walk around in the mornings with the indents of seven straps on my left arm, I am reminded of the covenant and my place within it. And when I gaze at the candles in my window, I am reminded of our proud, long, and rich history, and my place within it.

Eight: The Extra Day

In the portion of the Torah dealing with the sanctification of the mishkan (the tabernacle - the moving Temple of the Wilderness), we see Aaron and his sons engaging in inauguration rituals for seven days. And then Parashat Sh'mini opens with what happens on the eighth day, including more specific rituals, aiding Aaron and his sons in their transition into the priesthood.

I have long loved the idea of 'just one more' in Jewish ritual. On Shabbat and festivals, we finish our morning prayers, and then we add Musaf - the extra Amidah. The Torah describes the festival of Sukkot as a seven day festival, with an extra eighth day on the end. And probably the most famous of these examples is the doubling of festival days outside the Land of Israel.

While many argue against the extras, I happen to adore them. They represent the blurred line between the 'holy' and the 'regular'. And tonight, on this last night of Ḥanukkah, I am reflecting on how our tradition wishes to linger with the holy, to take more light into the world with us when the candles are no longer in the windows.


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