When we celebrated Passover by Zoom nine months ago, we never imaged we’d being doing the same for Thanksgiving let alone Hanukah. And yet here we are.
You know the saying – “patience is a virtue’ and indeed patience is counted as an important spiritual practice in Judaism. We see many examples of patience in the Torah.
Joseph, one of Jacob’s 12 sons, waits many years to be reunited and reconciled with his brothers. The Israelites wait 250 in slavery for God’s promise of freedom. The Israelites travel 40 years until they reach the promised land of Israel. And while there are moments of impatience in all of these narratives, the overriding theme is that the timespan, the waiting, serves a purpose. The characters learn to live with waiting, with the uncertainty, they practice patience and they are rewarded for it.
I’m thinking a lot about patience these days because I have found it’s an important tool for our current situation. We are so used to having everything at our fingertips – running out to grab any possible kind of food, jumping on a plane to any desired destination, or hopping in the car to visit any number of friends or family members. Now… we need patience. We need to plan and take precautions and we need to do a lot of waiting.
Let’s look to our holiday of Hanukah. Like most things in Judaism, Hanukah has its surface meaning – lights and presents and some foods of course family. But when we look bit deeper and there are some profound teachings I think about this quality of patience.
First of course, there is the light. You know we light one candle each night, increasing gradually. Why? Some say to replicate the miracle of the oil lasting. But if that were the case, we’d actually start with 8 candles and go down a bit each night. In Judaism, however, we’re taught that we never decrease light. We always increase. We always add light to the world, we always go up in holiness.
I love that message.
But this year, in our strange experience of being forced to slow down, forced to wait, forced to develop patience, I’m seeing the Hanukah candles differently.
When we light the candles, we do a little at a time, we appreciate each candle alone and then add it to the others. And only after consistently lighting for 7 nights, can we really appreciate the full display of 8 bright candles on the final night.
Lighting the Hanukiya (This is the proper name for the Menorah. Menorah means “lamp.” Hanukiya means a lamp for Hanukah.) this year can be an expression of our patience. Lighting one light represents the small steps we are taking to appreciate where we are here and now, to practice patience and calm in the face of uncertainty. Paying attention to one candle at a time, one day at a time, trains us to go slowly, not rush through the journey to get to the destination.
Practicing patience allow us to see that each day’s candles are beautiful and it’s a blessing that we can increase light in the world a little each night. If we just lit all eight candles on the first night, we’d miss the drama and crescendo of this gradual building of light. So Judaism teaches us to practice patience and appreciate this gradual increase of light each day.
The second aspect of Hanukah that comes to me this year is the history that led up to the event we celebrate. Hanukah literally means “dedication” and it commemorates the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it had been destroyed by the Greek army.
In Israel, in 167 BCE, the Greek Empire was on a march to take over the Holy Land and convert all the Jews to Hellenistic culture.
Their goal was to force the Jewish population to adopt Greek names, pray to Greek gods, eat Greek foods and assimilate fully into Greek culture.
A small band of Jewish soldiers, called Maccabbees, decided to rebel against this movement. They fought against the Greeks to take back the Jerusalem Temple. It was a losing battle. And ultimately the Maccabbees did lose. But for a period of time, the Maccabbees reclaimed the Temple, cleaned it, rededicated it, and returned it to functioning a holy Jewish centerpiece.
This history resonates for me this year because it was such an uphill battle. The world around them was falling apart, war and destruction, a huge, – really impossible – threat. And yet slowly, with patience, hard work and faith, this family of Maccabbees brought light and holiness back to Jerusalem.
This accomplishment was not done in days or even weeks. The revolt of the Maccabbees went on for 7 years. Seven years of one small tribe of Jewish soldiers fighting against a world class army. I believe even the Maccabbees themselves knew they couldn’t hold on forever. But they had patience and perseverance and they did what they could, with what they had, to keep the Temple in Jerusalem as the holy center of Jewish life.
So as we continue to cope with our confusing and often frustrating world today, I hope we can find some meaning in practicing our virtue of patience. Hanukah is a time of celebration and joy. We can appreciate every moment of that fun and brightness. And this year, Hanukah can help us practice the virtue of patience – lighting one candle at a time, remembering that the rededication of the Temple took many many years to accomplish. Patience and working slowly for a better future – these are Jewish values that can surely give us strength in the weeks and months ahead.
Hag Hanukah Sameah – wishing you a bright and joyful Hanukah!