There is something unique about Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, in that it comes—especially this year—in the shortest days of the year—the days with the least amount of daylight. My friend and colleague, Rabbbi Pinchas Klein shared with me that Shlomo Carlebach (Shmuel Zevin, Lev Shamayim on Hanukkah) observed that all other Jewish holidays begin during the period of the waxing—the increasing size—of the moon. And so in the month of Tishre we have Rosh Hashanah beginning on the new moon, Yom Kippur 10 days after as the moon is still getting larger, and Sukkot on the night of the full moon. Purim is on the 14th or 15th day of the lunar cycle of the month of Adar—just before and on the full moon, and Passover begins on the night of the full moon of Nisan. Hanukkah, however, takes place during the last days of the lunar month of Kislev—the waning of the moon, when the moon is the smallest. According to Sefer Yetzirah, this month of Kislev—the darkest month of the year—represents sleep which is the activity that dominates the night.
And so the Torah portions we read during the month of Kislev all have crucial nocturnal events:
• In Vayeytzey, Jacob dreams during the night of a ladder with angels ascending and descending.
• In Vayishlach, Jacob struggles through the night with an angel, yet emerges victorious with the rising of the sun. This successful nocturnal experience of dread and struggle concludes with the angelic blessing that his name will be changed to Israel.
• In Vayeyshev, Joseph’s nocturnal dreams drive the events that lead him to the pit where he is placed prior to his descent to Egypt. In the Egyptian dungeon pit, he successfully interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s baker and butler.
• In Mikeytz, this week’s parsha, Joseph successfully interprets Pharaoh’s nocturnal dreams and finally emerges from the pit to begin his brilliant career as prime minister of all Egypt who rescues the world from starvation and becomes the savior of his family.
The message of the month of Kislev is that Gd watches over us during the night of our lives. Hanukkah reminds us that when life seems the darkest, the light will follow—the few can prevail over the many. Our lives can turn around in wonderful ways we never expected.
Psalm 30 is the Psalm for Hanukkah. It’s also a celebration of victory and emergence from the pit and of coming out of the tears of darkness to a joyous day. The author, King David, remembers how he descended into the pit of illness and praises Gd for keeping him alive. In verses 4 and 6 he says: “You have preserved me from my descent to the pit…In the evening one lies down weeping, but with the dawn—a cry of joy!” The Psalm begins: Mizmor shir chanukat habayit, “A Psalm, a song for the chanukah, the dedication of Gd’s Temple.”
The rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees followed their victories which were the result of their spirit and courage and Gd’s miraculous intervention—disguised as a coincidence that the Syrian Greeks had to leave to fight other wars which they felt were more important. And we all know, as Einstein said: “Coincidence is Gd remaining anonymous.” Gd showed His hand again with the miracle of the jug of oil sealed with the sign of the purity of the high priest. The Maccabees were all Kohanim, priests. It was the priestly courage and spirit of the Maccabees that led the successful revolt against the Syrian Greeks; and it was no coincidence as well that its symbol would be the menorah—which was lit by the priests to bring light into Gd’s holy Temple. The message of the menorah conveyed by the prophecy of Zechariah in today’s Haftorah, “Not by might, not by power but by my spirit…” was actualized by the Maccabees.
In the creation story in the Torah, the 1st day ends with the phrase: Vay’hi erev vay’hi voker yom echad, “And there was evening and there was morning, one day.” Evening or night is a metaphor for evil or hardship and day is symbolic of the good. The evening is also a prelude to the day and hence, actually may also be called “day.” So when the Torah tells us that “there was evening and morning, one day,” it is telling us that when your life appears to be in the night, when life seems dark, understand it’s because you don’t see the end. In the Torah the night comes before the day. It’s all part of a day—evening and morning. Something that appears dark at the moment is dark only for the sake of the light that will come afterwards. It’s a tremendous idea—that the darkness of our lives is a challenge for our growth, and when we meet this challenge, it is followed by the light.
The message of Chanukah and today’s Torah reading to us is that even when the winter nights are long—even when darkness reigns for awhile—the Jewish people will prevail victorious and emerge so long as we remember the message that after the darkness comes the light—a message represented by the Chanukah menorah.
On a lighter note—pun intended—let me end with a couple of Chanukah stories. The 1st is called “Chanukah Mailing:”
A woman goes to the post office to buy stamps for her Chanukah cards. She says to the clerk, “May I have 50 Chanukah stamps?”
The clerk asks, “What denomination?”
The woman says, “Oh my Gd. Has it come to this? Give me 6 Orthodox, 12 Conservative, and 32 Reform!”
Gd’s light will only fully settle upon us when we’re one people—united and not divided.
The 2nd story: As the plane settled down at Ben Gurion airport, the voice of the Captain came on: “Please remain seated with your seatbelt fastened until this plane is at a complete standstill and the seat belt signs have been turned off. To those of you standing in the aisles, we wish you a Happy Chanukah. To those who have remained in their seats, we wish you a Merry Christmas!”
A merry Chanukah to you all. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis