Judaism is not nostalgic. Our Chagim are not wistful savoring of bygone times, serving to remind us of past events. Rather, they are occasions to recall them. As in, to call again the potential found in past events to the present, to harness the power latent in time to boost us to a higher rung on our ladder of spiritual development. To capture and grow from the voltage of each Yom Tov and season as it heralds in the time-coordinates it marks, we must study it at its earliest source, analyzing the events, and the potential revealed therein.
Chanukah did not actually begin with the Maccabees or Greeks. Chazal show us the secret of Chanukah present in the first year of Creation, and trace its path through all the descendants of Adam HaRishon, many of whom observe some light-based holiday, l’havdil, even today.
After the cheit of the eitz hadaas, Adam was expelled from Gan Eden. The pure light of the Or Haganuz was gone, hidden for posterity. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Adam noticed a pattern so disturbing as to strike terror in his heart. The last remaining source of usable light, the Sun, was fading fast. Each day was shorter than the last, and it seemed that the world, thanks to Adam’s sin, was headed to a place of endless night. Cold and darkness would soon rule the Earth and the terrors that lurk and stalk in primordial dark, howling and pacing just beyond the range of vision, would reign supreme. The universe itself was on a one-way trip, devolving back to astonishing emptiness. Adam’s trepidation grew as the day shrank, continually, for three months.
In desperation, Adam dedicated eight days to fasting and teshuvah. The final day was Tekufas Teves, winter solstice, following which, daylight began to lengthen. Adam understood that the sunlight had been disappearing due not to his sin, but to a natural process of waning and waxing, and would return fully. In his joy at not being abandoned to the night, he dedicated an eight-day chag to Hashem. Both eight-day periods are still observed today. For Jews, one is the root of Chanukah; for other descendants of Adam, l’havdil, they became the precursor for festivals of tumah, revelry and idol worship. The pagan ritual of Saturnalia was observed for centuries during the eight days.
At the core of the power present during the days of Chanukah, then, is the realization that we are never abandoned or alone, and though we may fall, all is not lost. Hashem, our loving Father, is present even in the inky blackness of our own failings. Our tiny lights in the window, fitful a glow as they may cast, struggling to penetrate the endless winter night, carries the reminder of Hashem’s warm embrace, there if we look for it, inviting us to be held, as on Daddy’s lap, if only we notice it.
The Chanukah miracle itself came at a similar juncture in history. Towards the end of Bayis Sheni, iron curtains descended across the Universe, effectively blocking our perception of the Creator. Prophecy ended. Chazal slew the yetzer for avodah zarah, and with it died our natural urge to reach above and beyond ourselves. Mankind tumbled from his ladder to ruchniyus with a resounding thud, and began to scrabble around blindly, looking for meaning in his physical world. Led by the Greeks, man’s eyes dropped from heaven, and he strove only for understanding and beautification of the earthy.
But just before these steel doors clanged shut, cutting us off from feeling Hashem’s presence through the long galus, He sent us a reminder.
A speck of light in the chashecha zu Yavan. A Chanukah miracle to take with us, to hug close to our hearts in the darkest, coldest exile. With the war won and our survival ensured, we could have sufficed with tamei oil, yet He gave us a kiss from on High, an extra nes He didn’t need to do.
The time of Chanukah, then, is ripe for finding light in darkness, love despite distance, good hidden in failure. This fits neatly into the pattern of our yearly avodah. Two months have gone by since the Yamim Nora’im, and now is the time for reflection. How many failures litter the side of the road we’ve traveled these two months? How much distance has worked itself in between us and Hashem? What is required of us now is a serious progress report, to identify our failures and handle them properly, to not allow them to fester and become our new frigid reality. We can do this by finding something right in our errors; kindness of Hashem even in our failures, feeling the fatherly kiss even as he turns away, be it in Har Nof or wherever we live.
Begin this avodah now. Arm yourself with a pen and paper, or your cheshbon hanefesh notebook. Make a list of personal failings and tragedies, minor or major, these last two months. Then ponder each one. Find parts done right, and bits of kindness in each. Celebrate them, feel the love in them. Amid the backdrop of dancing flames, sizzling frying pans, and merrily twirling dreidels, let the warmth of Chanukah invite you in from the cold.
Rabbi Landa is Rav of Kehilat Arzei Ramot in Yerushalayim and a Rebbe at Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim.