By Rabbi Daria Jacobs-Velde
Hanukkah is such a beautiful and powerful holiday in the Jewish tradition. Although it often is misunderstood as a Jewish Christmas and a sweet and fun festival of lights, its sacred story tells how the Maccabees searched for, and miraculously found, sacred oil to light. It is a message about light that is much deeper and important to come back to year after year.
Hanukkah takes place at the dark time of year; the moon is waning, and we’re in the shorter days of winter. As a festival that lasts for eight days, it always starts at the end of one moon cycle, or Jewish month, and continues into the next moon cycle or month.
Hanukkah is the only Jewish holy day that takes place at the end of the moon cycle. All other Jewish holy days either start with the new moon, take place early in the moon cycle, or, in the case of five of Jewish holidays, take place around the full moon, when the moon is shining most brightly.
What’s the deeper wisdom that we can understand in this unique situation? During Hanukkah, we have the tradition of lighting one candle on the first night of Hanukkah and then adding a candle each night for a total of eight nights. How may we understand this? Hanukkah begins not only when we are surrounded by shorter days and the darkness of winter, but also when the moonlight is getting fainter as the moon wanes day by day. We can thus feel overwhelmed by the physical and symbolic darkness that slowly surrounds us.
Judaism reminds us during these dark days to attend to our own light. to make sure we nourish and nurture it. When it is most dark, we must search and find ways to light up the sacred light that is our own candle. We must light this oil not at a superficial level, but at a deep level, so that it may last, even as it can never last just on its own. Each night then, as we light another Hanukkah candle, we are invited to look for the many ways that we can join our light with the other lights that are shining around us. Together we can create the bright light so needed by our souls and for all beings. By the eighth night of Hanukkah, one week later, we are shining exponentially more brightly, for our one candle has been joined by seven more.
Meanwhile, what has happened with the moon? The moonlight has continued to diminish in brightness, and the darkness outside has become strong, even so strong that there is eventually no light at all from the moon. But by increasing our own light and joining it with the light of others around us, we can step into a conscious and intentional partnership with the energy of the universe to start growing again. As Hanukkah comes to an end, a new Jewish month begins, and we can see the sliver moon.
The word Hanukkah is related to the word for dedication, and for education. The gift of Hanukkah is to educate ourselves about where we can find light that we can join with our own light, and then to dedicate ourselves to doing just that.