THE HOPE OF CHANUKAH
The days have become shorter and the periods of sunlight seem fleeting. It just feels dark and that isn’t so surprising given the world’s news. But along comes Chanukah with its message of hope, faith, optimism, and light.
Light and darkness, darkness and light; these are universal symbols throughout the world, metaphors for good and evil, for hope and despair. Light is often symbolic of God’s presence. Think about it--it’s everywhere but you can’t touch it, just like God. Contrarily, darkness which is bleak, black and devoid of energy often symbolizes an absence of God and God’s light. But, for Jews and throughout Jewish history, our history, light and darkness have been much more than mere symbols, as we see being played out in the world today.
Darkness and night are all too real for Jews, often signaling danger, a lack of control, evil and death. The terror of night, so palpable that Elie Wiesel simply entitles his eyewitness experience at Auschwitz, Night. He writes, “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night….” And yet, even Mr. Wiesel, with all that he witnessed and experienced, has made some sort of reconciliation with God. It must run in his family.
Mindy Wiesel is Elie Wiesel’s first cousin. Her parents were survivors of Auschwitz, and Mindy was the first baby born when Birkenau became a Displaced Persons camp just after the War. As she grew, here in the United States, the scars of her parents’ experience of the Holocaust affected Mindy profoundly. Mindy began to paint; she became an artist, a world renowned artist, and her abstract paintings, like her cousin’s writings, also tell a story of the Jewish people, of darkness and light, of hope and despair. A number of Mindy’s paintings are dark. Yet, in each of those paintings there is always a scintilla of color, some rays of light, because as her mother taught her, no matter how bleak, no matter how dark is the darkness, there is always some light peaking through. She reminded her daughter she just had to look for it and somehow find the faith that it can and will expand. For many Jews throughout our history, the light couldn’t come fast enough, but the lesson remains.
Chanukah is upon us and reminds us of the precarious nature of faith in goodness, in a brighter tomorrow, in the possibility that evil can be eradicated in a world which often feels like it has gone mad. It is an uncertain kind of faith born of a human ability to see sparks of light even in the darkness. It is a contingent “perhaps”, Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l, once called it, of a skepticism in faith which leads to God more surely than the arrogance which finds no room for doubt. But faith, history shows, is not enough. I’m reminded of the Woody Allen movie, Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which one of the Allen characters refers to the joke about the prize fighter who enters the ring. His brother turns to the family priest and says, “Father, pray for him” and the priest says, “I will, but if he can punch, it will help.”
Light, darkness, faith, sacred discontentment, anti-Semitism, terrorism, resistance—all of these are some of the themes of Chanukah as we consider the Maccabean success.
For each night of Chanukah, we first light the Shamash candle which then lights each of the others. The Shamash candle stands taller; it can see what others who are shorter cannot; its vision and faith in its vision is broader and deeper. The Shamash candle reminds each of us to create moments during which we stand taller by bringing light and enlightenment into the world because it’s the right thing to do.