We kindle these lights

There is something very frightening and foreboding about darkness.

lit menorah 88 (photo credit: )
lit menorah 88
(photo credit: )
There is something very frightening and foreboding about darkness. According to rabbinic lore, Adam, the first human being, knowing nothing about the way in which the world works, was terrified when the autumn equinox came and he saw the days becoming shorter and shorter and the period of darkness longer and longer. "Woe is me!" he said. "Perhaps because I sinned the world around me is turning dark and returning to its state of chaos and confusion. This, then, is the 'death' that was decreed upon me from heaven!" He then fasted for eight days. However when the solstice came and he saw that the days were becoming progressively longer, he said, "This is the natural course of the world." He then observed eight days of festivity. He created these days for the honor of heaven, but the pagans appointed them for idolatrous worship (Talmud, Avoda Zara 8a). In this way the sages explained the origins of the pagan holidays known as Kalenda and Saturnalia that were celebrated in the Roman world at the time of the winter solstice. It is also well known that the date of Christmas was simply an adaptation of these Roman holidays, so that, in a sense, they are still celebrated today. It would seem that Hanukka, although it commemorates a specific event that, according to historical records, took place at a specific date, also continues this tradition of marking the darkest time of the year by celebrating the importance of light. One of the common names for it is Hag Ha'urim - the Festival of Lights. As a matter of fact, the only real mitzva of the holiday is the kindling of light. Although we are accustomed to ascribe these lights to the legend of the oil that burned miraculously for eight days, this story is a late addition to the holiday, found for the first time in the Talmud. The Books of Maccabees make no mention of it nor does the special prayer, Al Hanisim - "Because of the miracles" - that we recite on Hanukka. That prayer, in a sense the official rabbinic explanation of Hanukka, specifies that the "miracle" was the victory of the small band of Jews against the might of the Syrian-Greeks, a victory that was marked by the rekindling of the menora in the Temple. The lights we kindle are an imitation of that act and are lit for eight nights because that was the number of days on which the rededication ceremony was held, patterned after the eight days of Succot. The ancient name for Hanukka was "the Succot of the month of Kislev." Once, many years ago, we spent Hanukka at the very tip of South America, where the seasons are reversed. There was no sunset and no darkness. The lighting of the Hanukka lights seemed to lose its significance. If there was no darkness to dispel, what was the point of kindling a flame? The symbolism of light, however, goes deeper than that. The idea that light represents the Divine is rampant in Judaism. It is no accident that the Torah begins the story of creation with the Lord saying "Let there be light!" Even before there is a sun, light is created. When God appears to Moses, He does so in the flames of the burning bush. When God appears later at Mount Sinai, it is in fire and flame. A pillar of fire accompanies the Israelites in the desert. When the Tabernacle is built, the menora is its central object, a candlestick that is shaped like a tree or a bush, lit every evening to represent the presence of God in that structure. In the words of the prophet, read on Shabbat Hanukka, the lights of the menora come to represent the power of God, "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, said the Lord of Hosts" (Zechariah 3:6). No wonder that the menora has always been the most potent and powerful symbol of Judaism and was chosen by the State of Israel as its official symbol. "The commandment is a flame and the Torah is light," says the book of Proverbs. Thus physical light becomes a symbol of the enlightenment that is brought by the observance of mitzvot. The task of human beings is to imitate God by bringing light into the world through their lives and through their actions. The popular Hanukka song has these lyrics: We have come to banish darkness. Light and fire are in our hands. Each of us is one small light, but together we are a mighty flame. Let the darkness flee before the light! There is much darkness in the world. There is much suffering and pain, ignorance and poverty, war and violence. The purpose of religion, true religion, is to alleviate the darkness and bring light, to encourage each of us to kindle flames that will bring God into the world. God is in the light, God is the Divine power that brings light and dispels darkness and we, human beings, are God's agents, entrusted with that task. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.