Over 2000 years ago, a small band of Jews called Maccabees led and won the first battle for religious freedom against a tyrannical Assyrian regime. This familiar summary of the story of Chanukah doesn’t include the lesser known fact that, within a couple generations, the descendants of the Maccabees themselves became oppressive rulers.
Even the original Maccabees were not perfect heroes. Their murder of fellow Jews with whom they disagreed was not an example our rabbinic ancestors wished to encourage. So, Jewish ritual tradition chose to ignore the military victory of the Maccabees, instead focusing on a miracle of light. They gave us candle lighting as our enduring Chanukah ritual.
The candles remind us that, although people contain a capacity for intense cruelty, many human beings rise up as lights for each other. There are always people who see and care for each other with tenderness and compassion, even as others act with cruelty. The candles bear witness to the human capacity for immeasurable kindness.
Our human future is not about the fleeting victory of one side or another. Rather, it is about the candles we light within ourselves and for each other, every day. Just as on each day of Chanukah we light one additional candle, our future depends on being present ― one person and one day at a time ― especially during times of fear and darkness.
In darkness, the light appears to shine brighter. In dark times, it feels more poignant to observe colleagues at JFS open their hearts to frightened and traumatized clients, while supporting each other with daily small kindnesses. Clients experiencing trauma understand pain, and we see them respond by supporting others who are hurting. In response to acts of hate, JFS receives calls, cards and flowers from people who want to help.
Life doesn’t always give us the choices we want, but we always have choices. The Chanukah candles call out and ask us to make a choice. They remind us to patiently bring light to others and to be confident that one light will be followed by another. One small candle cannot erase all the darkness, but we trust that others are also lighting candles and that we are not alone.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
The Chanukah lights teach us that same lesson. We light Chanukah candles in the darkest time of the year to remind us that nobody notices a bright candle when the sun is shining. It is during periods of darkness that we have the opportunity both to see and to add meaningfully to the light.
By Beth Huppin
Beth is the Director of JFS Project Kavod/Dignity. She has enjoyed teaching Judaics to children and adults of all ages in both formal and informal settings for over 30 years. She is the recipient of a 2010 National Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.
This content was made possible, in part, by funds granted by The Covenant Foundation. The statements made and the views expressed, however, are solely the responsibility of the author.