Chanukah is so much nicer when you light before 10 pm. I hate how many nights I've lit at 10 or 11 pm and then struggled to stay awake until the candles burned out, since I refuse to sleep in a room with any candles burning. It is unfortunate that I've lit alone, and so late, the first three nights this year. On Friday afternoon, there was a very hurried dash from Chanukah candles to Shabbat candles to a run, with food, to get into the eruv before shkiya. Working on the logistics of lighting is something I should be more attentive to in the future, since I can tell what a difference an earlier and less hurried lighting makes.
Aside from that, though, I am sad that Chanukah is so firmly associated with loss in my mind these days. It's not enough that I associate the loss of my friend Shira with Chanukah, and also the time I spent with my grandfather before he died, but now I also associate my deceased grandmother with Chanukah? Eight nights in a row is too many to dwell on death, absent shiva/shloshim, when it is natural to dwell on death for so long. It's also too much sadness for one holiday. By Shabbat, I couldn't stand it anymore!
So last night, watching the candles struggle valiantly to stay lit between the frigid cold of the glass window and the hot air wafting out of the clanking radiator underneath, I thought about lighting candles at the darkest time of the year and how Chanukah could stop being solely about sadness and loss for me.
I thought about the miracle of Chanukah being not that we won some short-lived military victory against the Seleucids, or that the oil lasted eight days instead of one, but that we bother to light candles during this dark, depressing time of year at all, rather than huddling under the covers and waiting for the sunlight to return.
I thought about this idea a lot in the years following Shira's death, when I tried to wrap my mind around the idea of celebrating anything on anyone's yahrzeit. Lighting candles? Singing hallel? Whatever for? It seems impossible, but, lo and behold!, through the intervention of time, fading memory, and increased focus on the gifts we received from a person during her lifetime, we somehow live to celebrate again.
In my more classically frum days, I would have dismissed the idea of comparing Chanukah to any other religion or culture's practice of lighting candles around the winter solstice as ecumenical nonsense. But you know what? Like so many other things that I was sure of when I was eighteen, it turns out that I was wrong. It's not that Chanukah isn't about the military victory and magic oil, but that is not all its about. One of the things that I love about Judaism is the way that it incorporates earlier practices into theologically meaningful holidays. The idea of lighting candles for eight days during the darkest time of the year precedes Chanukah according to the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah:
I don't know about you, but I've had days during the darkness of December where I've certainly thought, "Woe is to me...the world is returning to chaos." Whether I attribute this to my own sins or some more modern variation thereof is a separate matter entirely. But, my God! I don't think you have to have full-fledged Seasonal Affective Disorder to fear the clutching darkness of winter!ת"ר לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך אמר אוי לי שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים עמד וישב ח' ימים בתענית [ובתפלה] כיון שראה תקופת טבת וראה יום שמאריך והולך אמר מנהגו של עולם הוא הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים
“Our rabbis taught that when Adam saw the days becoming shorter, he said: 'Woe is to me, because I have sinned and the world is returning to chaos.' He prayed and fasted until the winter equinox when he noticed the days becoming longer. 'This is the way of the world,' he said, and he established an eight day festival.' (Tractate Avoda Zara, 8a)
Aside from the candles to brighten our path, we have another aid on which to lean. And that is God, the God who is "yotzer or u'voreh choshech," who "creates light and creates darkness." This bracha, or blessing, from Shacharit [the morning service], is one of my all-time favorite blessings. We Jews don't believe in a God who is all lightness. We believe in a God who creates darkness, also. We don't understand the darkness a lot of the time, but we believe that it comes from God. Hand-in-hand with this belief comes the faith that, as the morning follows the night, spiritual and emotional light inevitably follow dark. The world is a mean, nasty place sometimes. Some nights, some Decembers of the soul, seem interminable. But they are not. Dawn will approach, and whether we try to hasten its approach by lighting candles or by sitting in front of a light box (10,000 lux for about fifteen minutes a day is the recommended dose) or not, it will come.
Despite our worst fears, God will not return the world to chaos. That is the covenant that God made with Noah and all of humanity after the flood. This is the miracle of Chanukah to me, right now--that we have faith in "yotzer or u'voreh choshech," that we light candles in the darkness, that we combine our faith in God's hand in our lives with our own efforts at hastening the arrival of the dawn.
Tonight, after reciting Maariv and before lighting candles, I recited the 30th Psalm, as is customary during Chanukah, because of the connection between the Maccabean rededication of the Temple and the original dedication of the Temple. The verses that particularly speak to the idea of a God that creates light and darkness, and a God who promises not to let us languish in the pit forever although he makes no promises against us falling into that dark space in the first place, are highlighted below.
God does hide his face. We do become frightened as Adam did when the days seemed about to shrink into oblivion. But God eventually turns our mourning into dancing. God promises us that nothing that is bad will be bad forever. Redemption will come. We will be girded with gladness one day, and live to praise God again.
It sometimes seems like folly to praise the God who brings darkness, the God who causes the days to shorten, the God who takes away the dawn of friends, family, and life itself, and who causes us to gird ourselves with sackcloth in the beginning. I choose to believe, instead, that such praise of God is part of the miracle of faith, of recovery, and of the dawn that follows the darkness.
[And now the candles are all burned down, and I have a Chanukah party to attend.]