As we settle in for a pandemic winter, so many in our society are feeling the darkness of the season manifest as anxiety, unease, isolation and/or despair. These are feelings that may be especially familiar to those living with addiction, and for the many friends and family members who seek to support them. In this season of darkness, Chanukah comes just when we need it to the most, and its light serves as an antidote to the bleakness of winter, both literal and metaphorical. I want to lift up some of the themes of the holiday that make Chanukah such a powerful symbol of hope and a beacon of light for us all, in the midst of darkness.
In the Chanukah Story
The story we tell on Chanukah celebrates bravery first and foremost. In the classic account, when the Syrian-Greek ruler Antiochus IV outlawed Judaism, the Maccabees - a rag tag band of Jewish rebels - took to the hills to fight in order to preserve their ability to practice their traditions freely. Somehow, they succeeded in pulling off a military victory against the strong Seleucid army, and in doing so, they become models for standing up for our core beliefs and values, even in the face of tremendous odds. As JAAN readers know, facing addiction and working towards recovery also requires incredible bravery, every step of the way - from acknowledging the need for help, to establishing new patterns of living, to dealing with the stigma associated with addiction. On this holiday, we celebrate courage, both then and now.
The Chanukah story is also a tale of renewal. Antiochus marched into Jerusalem, vandalized the Temple, erected an idol on its altar, and even slaughtered pigs in order to desecrate the holy space. And yet, when the Maccabees re-entered the space, they determined that it was not damaged beyond all hope, but rather, could be reconsecrated for use. This idea of rededication - the possibility of a new beginning - is such a powerful statement, and of course also applies to the “temple” that is each individual. None of us are beyond hope, or damaged beyond repair. Chanukah reminds us that it is always possible to rededicate ourselves to holy purposes and begin again.
Through Celebrating the Festival of Lights
The placement of the holiday on the Jewish calendar also reinforces the themes of light and hope. Not only does Chanukah take place during the darkest time of the year - this is when the days are shortest and the nights longest (at least in the Northern hemisphere) - but the holiday of Chanukah also begins on the 25th of Kislev and is celebrated into the month of Tevet, such that it spans a Rosh Chodesh (New Moon - i.e. when there is no moon visible in the night sky). In other words, Chanukah always falls during the very darkest nights of the darkest season, when there is minimal sunlight and minimal moonlight too. It is precisely into this darkest window of time that we begin to light our own lights, to dispel the darkness. No matter how dark the world may feel, our celebration of Chanukah teaches there is always a possibility of hope and of bringing light into the world.
How we light the candles of the Chanukah menorah, too, is laden with symbolism. In accordance with Hillel’s opinion in the Talmud, we increase the nmber of candles on each of the eight nights of the holiday, increasing the light a little bit at a time. This principle is referred to in the Talmud as “ma’alin ba-kodesh,” “increasing the holiness.” The Chanukah candles inspire us to be constantly striving upward, improving as we go. The menorah’s candles increase one each night, demonstrating that this kind of growth is a process, one that typically happens in incremental steps. When dealing with addiction, patience is the key.
Even as the number of candles increase, it’s important to note that there is always a shamash - a helper candle - there to assist and light the others. In other words, no candle ever stands alone (not even on the first night!). This principle applies to battling addiction too…no one should have to go it alone. As a congregational rabbi, it is critical for me to ensure that Jewish individuals and families grappling with addiction know that they have a home in the Jewish community, places where they feel embraced, accepted and supported by rabbis, congregations, and peers, all of whom can play the critical role of shamash.
If you are reading this blog post, it means you’ve already found JAAN, so you are well on your way to managing through this dark season. Addiction is a hard disease; recovery is a life-long path, requiring bravery and a deep belief in the possibility of renewal and rededication. But the Chanukah story reminds us that we already have these abilities encoded in our history!
The act of lighting the Chanukah menorah is deceptively simple - it only takes a few minutes, isn’t hard to do, and can happen anywhere you are. However, its meaning is deep, reminding us of our aspiration to increase light bit by bit, and our need to find a supportive (shamash) team.
This winter, more than ever before, may the light of the Chanukah candles shine far and wide, dispelling the darkness and bringing light and hope to the world, and to each of us.
Rachel Nussbaum is the Rabbi and Executive Director of the Kavana Cooperative, which she co-founded in Seattle, Washington, in 2006. Kavana has received lots of recognition for its innovative approach to building Jewish community, and Rachel’s responsibilities run the gamut…from teaching and dynamic prayer leadership, to re-working the synagogue model for the 21st century. She is also one of the rabbis of the Jewish Emergent Network, and serves as a faculty member for the Bronfman Youth Fellowhsips in Israel and for the Wexner Heritage program. Originally from Charleston, South Carolina, she holds degrees from Duke University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She believes that local Jewish communities should weave a strong social fabric to support each community member on their journey.