Chanukah: Filling our lives with an ancient light
When we are children, Chanukah often seems the most important holiday — after all, we get gifts and chocolate coins. As adults, we learn that Chanukah commemorates a military victory as well as the miracle of the everlasting oil, and that it signifies our commitment to filling the darkest time of the year with light, even as we recognize that the holiday really isn’t very important spiritually. Still, maybe the wisdom of the child is greater than the practicality of the adult. In fact, Chanukah is a deeply important holiday — not just because of the Maccabees, but because of its biblical importance.
Yes, it’s biblical importance. The eight-day holiday that begins on the 25th of Kislev is implied in the Bible itself, and its importance is clearly seen throughout our ancient texts. As important, we can find a practice to invigorate and enlighten our modern lives through the celebration of this “minor” holiday…that really isn’t so minor.
To understand this, we need to take a look at the Jewish calendar and examine the life and death of our patriarch Jacob and his connection to what we celebrate during the Festival of Lights.
We are taught that Jacob is the patriarch most associated with the holiday of Sukkot, and that tradition has it that Jacob died on Erev Sukkot in the year 2255 (1506 BCE). But, after his death, “Egypt bewailed him for 70 days” (Gen. 50:3). After this period of mourning in Egypt, Joseph and his family travel for one day and hold an “imposing eulogy,” and then Joseph “ordained a seven day mourning period for his father.” (Gen. 50:7) Which brings us to the direct relationship between Jacob and our Festival of Lights: Sukkot is on the 15th day of Tishrei, and 70 days later is the 25th of Kislev. Our ancestors mourned Jacob for a total of eight days (one of traveling and a eulogy and seven for declared mourning), from the 25th of Kislev through the 2nd of Tevet…the exact dates that we now celebrate Chanukah. They were observing a holiday on the same dates, but preceding the Maccabean revolt by more than 1300 years.
Our Sages of the Talmud recognized the relationship between Sukkot and Chanukah in their dialogues and tie the two holidays together multiple times. We are taught of not reciting confession between Sukkot and Chanukah (Pesachim 36b); the description of the blessings said on both holidays in the same sentences (Sukkah 46a), and a discussion about the practical uses of the booths and the Chanukah lights are interspersed together (Shabbat 22a). We even see that our ancient elders put Chanukah in the same category as the biblically commanded three festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot when discussing what days “the flute is played” (Arachin 10a). And although Maccabees II is not considered canonical, we find that the text there states that Judah Maccabee himself wanted the Jews of Alexandria to observe a “holiday of booths” (“hag ha’Sukkot” 1:9) in the month of Kislev and ordained the Festival of Chanukah as “eight days in joy as the holiday of Sukkot” (10:6). For our ancestors, who would be aware of the mourning period that was a commemoration of Jacob’s death, the holidays of Sukkot and Chanukah are clearly linked.
Jacob, who had built the first “House of God” (“Beth-El”, Gen. 28:17), comes back to Beth El when he and his family are commanded by God to return there and “remove the foreign gods that are within you and purify yourselves” (Gen. 35:2). Similar to the practices of the Maccabees, he rejected foreign gods and dedicated himself to God. It is easy to see how our ancestors saw the rededication of the Temple as a recapitulation of Jacob’s journey.
During Sukkot, we dwell in our booths. We eat, sleep, study, and pray there. Everything that can be found in a sanctuary is there, with one exception: I have never seen a Ner Tamid, an eternal light in the Sukkah. We are blessed to see the lights of the Eternal through the roof, but not in the booth itself. On Sukkot we build the structure, and on Chanukah we light it up from the inside. The 70 days in between are a time to prepare for that light.
In the same way that the counting of the Omer prepares us after Passover for the giving of the Torah on Shavuot; these 10 weeks between Sukkot and Chanukah are a time for us to prepare to truly enlighten ourselves. It is a time of personal meditation to contemplate what we want to light up our lives with. What are the passions, joys, and goals that we want to ignite? What do we want to fill our own personal temples, our personal lives with? These 70 days are an opportunity to focus on the light that we want to shine into the world. The days in between are a powerful time to manifest what we truly believe in; a time to prepare to fill any emptiness in our lives with light.
Did the miracle of the oil happen on the exact same dates as the mourning period for Jacob? Maybe. Did the first Chanukah happen in the winter, and our Sages overlaid its celebration on to the same dates because of the clear parallels to Jacob? Again, maybe. Does it matter which is accurate? Probably not. What is more important today is that we use this time period to create a sacred structure within our lives: as safe and joyous as our Sukkah, and as bright and insightful as our Chanukah candles.
Chanukah is a time to fully enliven and enlighten our lives; a time to fill our houses with a light that can never be extinguished. It is a time to fully bring the wisdom of Jacob into our lives, and to create a sacred Temple in all of our physical spaces. When we celebrate, and when we remember, we use candles. May these candles be the reflection of the brightest parts of our souls, and may Chanukah have the deepest of meanings as we shine.
Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of The New Shul of the Conejo, and the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together”. He can be reached directly at RabbiBarclay@aol.com.