This Hebrew month of Kislev is – in the northern hemisphere – the darkest month of the year. To me (a relative newcomer to Massachusetts!) the first really cold days which also take place this month feel colder as they shock the senses and portend the long winter that is settling in.
Yet in Kislev, we light Chanuka candles and dispel a bit of the season’s darkness. The whole month glows with the spirit of Chanuka! This year especially when it feels so many ‘dark forces’ surround us in the world, I’ve been trying to focus on the light that can be seen amidst the dark, the positive, the hopeful, the good that continues to prevail and shine despite everything else.
The following article, on this theme of dispelling darkness and embracing light, will appear in the Chanuka edition of the Jewish Journal. Let’s bring more light to these days before Chanuka, during Chanuka itself, and keep making more light after the holiday as well….
We Have Come To Dispel The Darkness
The Rabbis of old debate an interesting question that seems poignant today. Is it enough to light the Chanuka candles and hold them in your hand, or do you need to set them down while they burn?
They are concerned that, if you are holding the candles, passersby will think that you are merely using the candles for light – like a flashlight. They will not notice any exceptional meaning to the lights or to your having kindled them.
If so, the point of the candles will remain unfulfilled: Chanuka candles are meant to “advertise the miracle.” The candles glowing for all to see in your menorah on the windowsill – or perhaps in a glass box on your front stoop – suggests an extraordinary reason beyond practical illumination for these candles to cast their light.
What are the Chanuka candles illuminating? What is “the miracle” that the candles must call people’s attention to?
Yes, of course: the miracle of the oil lasting eight days instead of only one. Could there be more to it than this, though?
This year, let’s also consider the other side of the debate – holding the candles.
This year, the proverbial ‘darkness’ against which we light the Chanuka candles is heavier and darker than it has been in a long time:
The evil perpetrated by Hamas on October 7 extinguished the lives of so many people, each containing so much love, so much life. The absence of all that light from so many victims – Mishlei teaches us that “the human soul is God’s candle” – is weaving a thick gloom over Israel and over us.
We can only imagine the darkness in which the remaining hostages are being imprisoned in the Hamas terror tunnels underground.
The catastrophic brutality of the warfare required to eliminate Hamas, and the ensuing suffering this warfare causes, casts an intense shadow over every heart’s capacity for compassion and hope, and obfuscates the moral vision of every eye.
Clouds of antisemitism growing more vicious and ubiquitous around the globe are intensifying the ‘darkness’ of this winter season with fear, dread, and – seemingly – traumatic ghosts of horrors past threatening to manifest again in the present.
The Rabbis in their discussion wonder if the simple act of igniting a flame of light in the darkness is enough to “advertise the miracle.” After all, the blessing we say over the Chanuka candles is “…Who has commanded us to KINDLE the Chanuka candles.” When layers of darkness are piling up, the kindling of a light is itself a kind of miracle, a flash of relief, of vision and hope. Maybe the Rabbis were channeling the great fictional sage, Albus Dumbledor: “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
Then again, the Rabbis don’t think merely striking a match is enough, just as a lightning bolt – despite all the immense power it contains – fails to provide enduring light to the world. The spark of kindling must ignite a wick, and that wick has to be connected to a fuel – oil, or candle wax – so it can continue burning for some time. The ‘miracle’ of light dispelling the dark has to endure.
Maybe the idea of ‘holding’ a Chanuka light as it endures can be understood this way. A couple of weeks ago, a funeral was held for Vivian Silver, z”l, one of the founders of Women Wage Peace, which is the largest grassroots peace movement in Israel. It is comprised of both Arab and Jewish women who refuse to let war be the only option for our future. Silver was brutally murdered by Hamas on October 7th. Her friend, Ghadir Hani who is from the Arab village of Hura near Be’er Sheva, eulogized her and pledged to continue their activism for Women Wage Peace:
‘You cannot dispel evil with darkness,’ you always said.
‘Evil is dispelled with more and more light…’
If there is one Chanuka song to sing this year with an essential message for the Jewish People and all the world as your candles burn brightly, it is this song. It is one of Israel’s most popular kids’ songs for Chanuka, and its message is crucial for all of us today. It’s called Banu Choshesh Legaresh – “We Have Come to Dispel the Darkness.”
We have come to dispel the darkness
In our hands we hold fire and light
Each of us is a small light
But together we are a strong bright beacon
Flee darkness! Retreat night!
Flee because of our Light!
This Chanuka: What light will you ignite and sustain, hold and set steady? How will you dispel darkness and force evil to retreat with your goodness and light? With whom will you stand to be a beacon to guide others?
Rabbi Michael Schwartz