Note: Tonight is the sixth night of Chanukah, the night we remember Judith hacking off Holofernes’ head by eating cheese (yes, there is a reasoning behind that strange statement), and I really had planned to write a post about that. But it is also Isaiah’s sixth birthday and deep in the grading nightmare for the husband and the night before we get up at 4am to butcher the turkeys (and if anyone is looking for a free-range, heritage turkey for the holidays in the greater Albany/Schenectady area, email me at email@example.com) and I’m just not feeling innovative. So here’s an old piece that I run every year. Happy Chanukah!
1. The Shammash (this is the candle one uses to light all the others)
Among the snowy houses
There was only one
Candle lifted to light another.
The essential message of Chanukah is anti-assimilationist. The Jews were ordered to assimilate into pagan society, including eating pagan foods and worshipping pagan gods, and the Maccabees resisted – while many other Jews acceeded. Their tiny and overmatched force won a long war against terrible opposition. It is a reminder, that every revolution starts with a “No,” a refusal to bow down, to accept the loss of identity into the mass culture. We too can and must begin with a “No,” or a series thereof, in which we decline to participate in the consumer culture and the destruction of justice. The changes we are undertaking are a revolution. And our hope of transforming the world is precisely the same as that of the Maccabees – faint, and yet we must succeed, so we will.
2. The First Candle.
I said three brachot
On first nights, we begin again.
There are two traditional brachot, or blessings, for the Chanukah candles that are said every night. But on the first night, we add a third blessing, the schecheyanu. This prayer translates as “Thank You G-d for sustaining us and bringing us to this particular moment.” It is a prayer that Jews say whenever they do something special for the first time in a long time – the first time they see flowers bloom, or celebrate a new holiday in the cycle, come together with family they have been parted with or put on a new item of clothing. It is reminder that life is cyclical and seasonal, and that this is our natural state. We are supposed to experience joy and pleasure when new things come to us, and then put them aside, until they come again in their own time and season. It is easy to forget in our society that cyclical life is what creates much of our joy. It is no pleasure to eat strawberries when you can have them every day. There is no way to separate feasts from ordinary days if you eat each day the way our ancestors feasted. It is not loss to live simply and in tune with the seasons, but a gain.
3. Second Candle
A man and a woman
A man and a woman igniting fire
In our prayers, Jews not thank G-d for the light itself, but for giving us the job of lighting the candles ourselves. We are grateful for being given an act, a route to meaning, a way of doing good. I do not expect all (or even most) of those who read this to be Jews or even theists, but this is worth considering even if you aren’t. Perhaps we should be more grateful for honorable work, for the chance to do good by our own hands.
For Jews, it isn’t that G-d didn’t make the light, it is that G-d was generous enough to share the labor of creation with us. In the stories, we are made in G-d’s image, and so how could we not find satisfaction in creation? Whether you believe that or not, it says something that deep in our collective narrative is our need to do something that matters, work that creates something and is worth doing. In the end, everything we create for ourselves, instead of buying, strengthens us. It makes us more. Or maybe more like
4. Third candle
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The child singing
Or the silence after.
Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, it is easy to get caught up in the orgy of buying and spending. One of the arguments against doing so for us is that we’ve tried very hard not to overstimulate our kids. We want to keep the focus on the singing, and praying, friendships and special foods, and generally, we do. When we add too much more, it often ends with a child in tears or conflicts, because as nice as things are, too much is simply too much.
The difference between children and adults, is that children often know when enough is enough, and simply stop going forward. We adults often don’t know when to stop. We keep raising the bar to what makes things “special” when we should be lowering it. Instead of more gifts, and more events and special foods and things, perhaps we should ask ourselves “If the ritual, and the beauty of it, and our time with each other isn’t enough, why not? How have we failed?”
5. Fourth Candle
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know,too,
That Light is involved
In what I know.
Why do I insist on bringing G-d into this at all? Why not simply talk about how to dip your own candles, or why we shouldn’t buy giant plastic menorahs? I bring G-d in because G-d among other things represents the limits of our knowledge, the things that exceed our grasp no matter how hard we reach. There are plenty of other good ways to articulate that we are not omniescient – this is mine and I do not insist that it apply to others.
But however we come to the notion of limits, particularly to the notion that what we do always, always has unintended consequences, often harmful, we must begin to recognize it as a central part of human actions. Jews have the concept of pe’ah, the marginal parts that are the transition between the self and G-d – the hair that some Jews leave uncut, the margins of the field we are commanded to leave for the poor to glean, they all derive from this same root concept, that the edgees of ourselves are not solely our own, and our own interests are not always paramount there. Perhaps we need a secular equivalent, one that would enable us to grasp the inevitability of cost to others when we are excited by this new thing or another. Perhaps we need a secular theology of limits, one in which we see the spaces where our interests conflict with one another not as sites of trouble, but as a place for us to be greater than we are.
6. Fifth Candle
When the candles burn down and flicker
The light pools
In intersecting circles with the light
From my neighbor’s tree.
If anti-assimilationism is the central message of the history of Chanukah, we should remember that we are not the only people who celebrate the restoration of the light. If there is a single work to be done in the next decade, it is to build community in every sense of the word. We need not assimilate, in fact, we should not, because we cannot afford to lose any more diversity. But we cannot close the doors on one another.
It is always easier to build community with people who are like you, with the same values and the same ideas, maybe people from the same family, or with the same experiences, and there is nothing wrong with that. But we have lived the last decades as though the people we cannot see, the people downstream from us, out of sight or in other nations, do not matter. So at the same time that we strengthen the ties with those who are like us, we absolutely must strive to create a new recognition of the other, a new way of connecting, of at a minimum, doing no harm, and just possibly, joining some of our pools of light.
7. Sixth Candle
He rode over the coutryside
In a mighty coach
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook the shadow of his equipage
The original form of this poem was written before the invention of the SUV . The SUV, is, among other things, a graphic symbol of our fears – we buy them in part because they are big, and seem (however falsely) to be secure, and to make us powerful when we are doing a scary thing, racing metal machines at each other at high speeds. The SUV is a bad guy, the public face of greed for many environmentalists, but it is also an easy target that masks some basic truths.
Push all of us environmentalists hard enough and you’ll find the things we are not willing to give up, even though they are not unadulterated goods. We aren’t willing to give up our job serving some appalling corporation or our investments in the same, because doing so would mean giving up our insurance or hope of retirement. We aren’t willing to let go of our appliances because we’re afraid we couldn’t manage without them. We are not willing to have fewer children, because we fear we might be alone someday. We are all afraid of the dark, and sometimes the dark is cast by the shadow of our equipage, the literal and metaphorical stuff we carry around with us. Let us remember, that even the driver of the SUV is often merely afraid – just like us. So there is hope.
8. 7th Candle
The candles are flickering.
The latkes must be frying.
One of the traditional festival foods of Chanukah is the latke. It is a simple enough concoction – shredded potatoes, eggs, salt, onion, fried in copious oil. For poor Jews in the northern hemisphere, they were fancy enough to be celebratory (all that oil to remind us of the miracle of the lamp, and eggs that must have been carefully saved up since the hens laid only little in the dark season), but simple enough to be accessible even for those who had little to spare.
In the same sense, the traditional food of the sabbath was sweet bread, rather than a large roasted animal. It was not always possible to have meat, but one hoped that everyone could have bread, and that the bread could be especially soft and sweet. Many Jews keep kosher, which means we separate milk and meat, and after eating meat, we wait a while before eating milk. It was commanded that our sabbath bread must always be pareve (that is, containing neither meat nor milk, and thus edible by anyone), lest an unexpected guest who had just eaten a meat meal arrive at our dairy sabbath and not be able to partake. No one, under any circumstances, must be denied access to the basic staple food of our culture, Jewish law tells us. The same principle holds in our culture. We must find a way to make access to staple foods a basic and universal right. We must ensure that no one is ever excluded from our table.
9. 8th Candle
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow
The menorah sat
On the windowsill
The deepest miracle of Chanukah is not the miracle of the oil, a story that was added to the text later, or the miracle that a small force overpowered a great one. Nor is it even the miracle of the return of the sun cycle or our power to make light in darkness. Or rather it is all those things. But it is also something else.
At Passover, in the spring, we sing the prayer, “Dayenu” which means “it would have been enough.” Thus we tell ourselves that it was a wonderful miracle that G-d led us out of Egypt, but it would have been enough if he had not, if he had only given us the Sabbath, or the Torah, or merely our lives. And too, here is the real miracle of Chanukah. It would have been enough if the Maccabees had only resisted, but not succeeded. We would have endured, and gone on, and resisted again and again for as long as it took.
It would have been enough, had the oil in the temple menorah lasted only the one day we could have expected. We would have prayed imperfectly, and our prayers would have been heard.
It would have been enough, had we never discovered the modern miracle of the oil, and had we never created our industrialized society. We had enough.
I do not know if we still have enough, or if, in our rush to delight in our modern miracle we have caused such harm to the earth we were given that we cannot restore it. But as things change, and we concentrate on what is now lost, let us not forget that it is not the miracle of the oil that mattered most, but the ordinary miracle of sufficiency. It would have been enough had the sun only returned, and with it, the spring. But we were also granted the opportunity to light the candle, to sing the hymn, to stand in the circle, to express our gratitude, to reach out to the other, to share a meal, to give a gift, to do good work and to praise our world. And it may be enough.