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Hanukah and Hope

12/05/2012 10:25:38 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

Hope is one of those essential elements like air, water, love… It’s very hard to be fully human without hope. There is lots of hope in the narrative of Hanukkah: the victory of the few against the many, light in a dark time – even in the darkest of times, as during the Shoah, there is the light of hope.

For years I resisted the connection between Hanukkah and the Shoah: “does everything have to be defined by the Holocaust?!?” This year I understand for the first time why: the Shoah was as close as one could come to hopelessness and remaining hopeful in the face of such radical evil was a profound form of resistance. Hanukkah bears witness to the elemental nature of hope. The soul can’t survive; we can’t thrive, without it. So there are many Shoah /Hanukkah stories, like the Rebbe who lit broken shoe laces for Hanukkah candles with great risk, fear and joy to see the hopeful, if short-lived flickering light, or the boy who hid in a monastery and stealthily gathered wax droppings from votive candles at the alter so that he could light his hanukkiah in secret in the basement, or the family who lost everything but their lives and the old, worn, silver hanukkiah which they somehow smuggled with them to safety and which they still light every year.

Hanukkah is married to hope. In fact hope, the dogged belief in the promise of the future, plays a starring role in this holiday. For example, who is the real hero of the story? Mattathius the Priest? Judah Maccabee? No, taught my great teacher, Rabbi David Hartman. The real hero is the person who lit that first light not knowing where the oil would come from to sustain the flame.

That is hope personified, a leap of faith but also a belief in our ability to make a difference, a positive change in the world.

Margaret Mead, one of the greatest cultural anthropologists of the 20th Century, is famous for, among other things, the saying: “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

The belief that we can really make a difference is just like the act of lighting that first light. It is an essential Hanukkah message; we may not be able to see into the future or even imagine a better tomorrow, but we light that first light anyways – it is the light of hope which we must kindle if for no other reason than to remind us that the few can defeat, transform and overcome the many, and even in the darkest of places there is light.

We live in pretty challenging times. Pick your poison: fiscal cliffs, wars, climate change. There is plenty to despair… Hanukkah, our chameleon Holy Day, could not come at a better time. The hopeful message of those flickering lights is the perfect antidote to depressing headlines. The story of the few that triumphed over the many is great therapy for the pessimism – hopelessness really — that can creep in when we feel like we’re in way over our heads.

This year, as we light our hanukkiyot, lets recall “ba yamim hahem”, the days of old, all that our people have gone through, especially the fact that “we never let the light go out,” we never gave up. Hope does, thank God, spring eternal. In fact, it is an essential part of what it means to be human.

Happy Hanukkah – may your holiday be filled with light, love and hope.

Mon, April 6 2020 12 Nisan 5780