Chanukah/Solstice: Thoughts for 2008

This year the first night of Chanukah, Dec. 21, 2008, falls at the winter solstice. How wonderful when the Jewish lunar calendar comes together with the solar calendar! It is appropriate to the season that one of the names of Chanukah is Chag Urim, or Festival of Lights. What lights does Chanukah celebrate?

One answer is that Chanukah celebrates the lights of the menorah in the Temple. These sacred lights were rededicated following the war between the Maccabees and the Syrian Greeks, a war which was also a civil war between factions of Jews). During this civil war, the Temple was in the hands of the Syrian empire. After the victory of the Maccabees (also known as the Hasmoneans), the Jews rededicated the Temple and relit the sacred lamps. The Talmud records that although there was only enough pure oil left for a single day’s light, the oil burned for eight days, long enough to prepare new oil.

Yet Chanukah also celebrates the lights of the sun and moon. The candle we use to light the other candles is called shamash, or sun. The lamp of Chanukah is a sign of the ever-renewed sun. The light seems to die at this winter season, yet it always comes back. The Divine provides a daily miracle: the light of a star burns for millennia and warms the earth so life can survive here. The following Talmud story illustrates how the solstice and the celebrations of this winter season are connected:

"When Adam saw the day gradually diminishing, he said, “Woe is me! Perhaps because I sinned, the world around me is growing darker and darker, and is about to return to chaos and confusion, and this is the death heaven has decreed for me. He then sat eight days in fast and prayer. But when the winter solstice arrived, and he saw the days getting gradually longer, he said, "Such is the way of the world,” and proceeded to observe eight days of festivity. The following years he observed both the eight days preceding and the eight days following the solstice as days of festivity."
(Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 8a)

In this story the first human being, born in the autumn at Rosh haShanah time, is distressed over the decreasing light and believes it is a punishment. Only when he learns that the light will begin to grow again is he comforted. We too often feel sad or anxious when the light diminishes and are glad when it comes again. Adam's drama of fear and acceptance helps us to accept our own moments of not knowing. We acknowledge that both the light of the summer sun and the darkness of winter have their place in the seasons and in our lives.

As Arthur Waskow notes in his book Seasons of Our Joy, Chanukah falls at the waning of the moon, and the center of the holiday is at the dark of the moon. The new moon comes just at the end of Chanukah. So the lights of Chanukah also celebrate the moon's waxing. The moon is a symbol of the wandering immanent divine presence of Shekhinah, just as the sun is a symbol of Tiferet, the face of the Holy One at the heart of the Tree of Life. Chanukah brings these two great lights together and celebrates them both.

So, as we celebrate the Festival of Lights on this day of the solstice, may we see in the candles both the lights of our own family and tribe, and the great lights that illumine the whole world. As the moon and the sun wane and wax together, may we know that we too are intertwined lights, shining on one another and blessing one another in beautiful and shifting ways. Chag urim sameiach: a joyful, radiant holiday to all.

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