What are you getting for Chanukah this year? I don’t mean the gifts you’re anxiously awaiting in your mailbox, though gift giving on Chanukah is actually an ancient tradition. I mean, what really is the gift of Chanukah? Is it freedom? Is it independence? Is it survival? Is it the ability to wrap a drone in shiny colored paper and watch a child of six gleefully smash it into the wall repeatedly that very night? The answer is a redemption even greater than that of Yom Kippur, an opportunity to spread light in our daily lives.Chanukah was a time of redemption for our people, a time when we had fallen hard and largely abandoned our culture. This idea of redemption is an integral facet of almost all of our religious observance. We are a people of redemption. It is our national focus, our spiritual longing, our physical strength. Yom Kippur is a holiday that celebrates (yes, it’s actually supposed to be a happy occasion) personal redemption, and it is great enough to redeem us from grievous sins. Purim, Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot celebrate national redemption. Chanukah celebrates both forms of redemption.
Rabbi Shlomo Calrebach points out:
“Chanukah is the greatest cleansing. On Yom Kippur, G-d forgives us for our sins, but the cleansing of the hatred- the incompleteness- is on Chanukah. Chanukah is the great fixing of the heart because certain completeness comes down with the ohr haganuz, the concealed light. This awesome light gives us a full heart, not a half heart.”
Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, more commonly known as the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, said, “Wherever you reached on Yom Kippur and Simchat Torah, you’ll reach even higher on Chanukah.”
The light of Chanukah illuminates for us our failings since Yom Kippur. Each light until the last, the menorah remains partially empty, a symbol of the many promises we made on Yom Kippur that we have not kept, the many failings we may have had until that point. But, the last night, the whole lamp is beautifully illuminated with flickering lights – a light to guide our way for the future, a whole lamp – not partially lit but completely aflame. Moreover, the whole menorah lit on the last night is a reminder that, though we may have failed a bit, though we may have empty promises, pledges, and goals, Hashem (G-d) still shines His light on us, still loves us, and this should uplift our souls to follow the light of the menorah that guides our way for the rest of the year.
Right now we are in a time of great darkness and great light. It is the middle of winter and we walk the cold frozen streets as thousands die in the desolate streets of Syria, as a growing movement of dangerous nationalism begins to take the world again, and as our own country becomes dangerously polarized. Our world itself is reacting violently, as pollutants give rise to dangerous environments and rapid changes; we begin to reel with the effects of our supposed progress.
And because the light we have today is so florescent – so harsh and exacting, such ill illumination of life – we get a distorted image of the world, so that yet again, “the evil Jew,” pervades the political and academic atmosphere. Attacks are beginning to intensify against Jewish journalists online and in person and against students and student groups. Against this onslaught so similar to the Selucid oppression of years ago, what are we to do?
Our world is killing us. Our mental, physical, and spiritual lives suffer as we try to keep up with the pace of the world, to keep from drowning in the waters of perceived progress gone awry, to keep from being broken apart as we ourselves seek to progress. And there are more and more answers, more and more false lights to guide us on and on and on, as if the whole world was some monstrous, endless swamp and we require a guiding light to wade through the excesses of insecurity, war, turmoil, sadness, pain, and suffering.
And yet, there amidst the bright darkness of the present world, there is a glimmer of another light growing stronger, represented by the glow of our menorahs.
We have such an amazing opportunity! We have the ability to illuminate the world. By remembering the miracles that were wrought for us, by shining out into the darkness with connection to each other and Hashem, we connect the world with the source of its creation and allow a little more of the essence of life to shine.
We are not a people accustomed to proselytizing our faith. However, we have always known that we have a responsibility to share some of our beliefs. We believe that the core of the world is essentially good and only needs to be elevated and uplifted to be redeemed. We believe that the whole world can be changed for the better.
We do not have to keep pushing forward, destroying ourselves and the world in the process. We do not have to be sucked into despair. We do not have to stand idly by as confused individuals coerce mobs into violent forces that push us to the brink. Chanukah teaches us to fight.
It teaches us to fight an inner fight to redeem ourselves. And, sometimes, we fail in this, immediately feeling forsaken. But it is only that feeling of despair that keeps us from our redemption. How many promises were made on Yom Kippur that lay trashed? On Yom Kippur we stop acting like human beings to achieve an almost divine state, in which we can receive redemption. For the rest of the year, the light that we received on Yom Kippur shines down on us, but we dirty ourselves and our world over time and slowly that light shines down on darkness.
Chanukah is different because, on Chanukah, the light is shining from below, not above. On Chanukah we take the light and bring it into the week, into the mundane, into the profane, and into the observable reality of the world. We do not have to raise ourselves up; we get the light down here in the muck with us.
We can tap into the greatest power of renewal and redemption.
The “secular prophet,” Ahad Ha’am, also believes that the Jewish people exist in this world for the purpose of redeeming it. It is our sacred duty. We redeem the world by separating the sacred from the profane and increasing that which is sacred. He explained in an essay in 1892 that:
“In profane matters the instrument derives its worth from the end, and is valued for the most part only in so far as it is a means to that end; and consequently we change the instrument as the end demands, and finally, when the end is no longer pursued, the instrument automatically falls into disuse. But in sacred matters the end invests the instrument with sanctity of its own. Consequently, there is no changing or varying of the instrument; and when the end has ceased to be pursued, the instrument does not fall out of use, but is directed towards another end.”
We, the Jewish people, are sanctified, a sacred instrument for the redemption of the world. We can burn away the false light and illuminate the darkness, in our own lives and in the entire world.
We can do it. After all, that’s why we are here.
Joshua Reynolds graduated from Yeshiva University with a B.A. in Political Science.