Do you find yourself longing for greater peace, and a bit more light, in what often feels like an increasingly dark and confusing time? Given the events of the passing weeks and months, that’s not surprising. In fact, how could it be otherwise? That is why the holiday of Chanukah has never been more important than it is this year.
Since Rosh HaShanah, when I last wrote for these pages, we have experienced carefully orchestrated mass murder in Paris and Mali, rising violence by seemingly grass-roots terrorists using knives, Molotov cocktails and vehicles in all parts of Israel, and rising cynicism and frustration about virtually every major issue we face as Americans, from the quality of our police to who will be our next president. This is definitely one of those years when we all need Chanukah, and not just because we need a few days of celebration, but because we need the story and values celebrated by this particular holiday.
For more than 2,000 years, we have kindled and kept alive the lights that both we and our world most need, even as so many others have been most tempted to give up on that very promise. Yes, the challenges we face are great, but so is this moment of opportunity — a moment in which we can rise to the empowering and uplifting call of the holiday — by choosing to light a candle, or eight, instead of simply cursing the darkness. The Maccabee heroes of the Chanukah story did it, and we can do so again today, if we remember and trust who we are — each and every one of us. It begins by appreciating not only how much we want Chanukah, but also how much Chanukah wants us.
Long before Uncle Sam was recruiting young men for the U.S. military, with the now iconic Uncle Same Wants You posters, the ancient holiday of Chanukah invited and challenged each of us to find and also to create light even at the darkest of times and in the most unlikely places.
The sages teach (Babylonian Talmud 21b and following) that while one candle is good, more are better, and best of all is each person lighting their own candles, adding one with each passing night of the holiday. Why? Because nobody but you has your unique light, and Chanukah celebrates that light which only you can bring to the people and places you love.
Chanukah invites each of us to celebrate the unique and essential contribution that each of us makes to the families, communities, and nations we call our own. So, whatever your Chanukah practice — lighting one menorah or many or none at all, whether you like your latkes with apple sauce or sour cream, or if you prefer doughnuts to latkes — Chanukah wants you to join the 2,000-year-old tradition that invites each of us, whoever we are and wherever we are, to bask in the unique light that each of us brings to the world, and to use that light to help us move forward in our lives, and add to the light and warmth our world so desperately needs.
So how do you do this? It all comes down to four little words that can make a very big difference: celebrate, cultivate, integrate and locate. And since there are eight nights of Chanukah we get two shots at each!
On the first two nights, celebrate the light you already have — whatever it is that you think shines most when you are at your best. Do something to truly celebrate those pieces of you.
For the next two nights of the holiday, cultivate the light you wish to have. What is a trait that you hope to deepen, or even to develop from scratch? You may not want to share this challenge with others, but you can only begin finding what you want when you take a moment to articulate it, at least to yourself.
On nights five and six, integrate a light you see in someone else — a quality that shines from someone you love or admire. What can you do to begin to follow in their footsteps?
On the last two nights of Chanukah, be as bold as a Maccabee daring to lift a little jug of oil even though it seemed so insufficient, and locate a light in someone, or some place, you have never seen before. Heed the Grateful Dead’s advice: “Once in a while you get shown the light / In the strangest of places if you look at it right.” This may be the hardest step of all, especially in dark times, but it is also the stuff of making miracles, as the holiday story reminds us.
You have eight nights to celebrate your own unique light in the world, and appreciate others’ as well. Why? Because Chanukah wants you!
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is president of Clal-the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.