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Festival of Lights Strengthens Faith and Hope, Even in the Midst of Dealing with Injury and Illness

By Rabbi Fred Greene
Spiritual Leader, Temple Beth Tikvah

The faith and hope of America’s Jews has always been strengthened by the story of the Hasmoneans (often referred to as the Maccabees) – the ancient family that battled against the oppression of the Jews by the Syrian branch of Alexander’s empire. The Hasmoneans fought against the Antiochus Epiphanes’ efforts to institute pagan rituals and sacrifices in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Chanukah is the celebration of the Maccabees’ victory over Antiochus’ army and the rededication of the Holy Temple.

Chanukah is also known as the Festival of Lights. Light is a key element of a separate story that emerges long after the Maccabees’ revolt. We are taught that the Maccabees found enough oil to light the ancient Temple’s menorah (candelabra) only for a single day, but a miracle kept it burning for eight days.

Let’s weave these various themes together for deeper insight on the struggle against repression, opportunities for rededication and the miraculous power of light.

As Chanukah emerged at the darkest time of the year, the rabbis of old responded by lighting candles in an effort to draw light into the world and to appreciate even the humblest flickers of light as a blessing. Such a picture evokes images of those among us who are sitting with darkness because they struggle with the effects of injury, illness (physical or mental) or loss. Chanukah is Judaism’s response to those who feel darkness has overwhelmed them. Lighting the chanukiah – the Chanukah menorah – nurtures our faith and renews our spirit, even when challenged by fear and despair.

And so we follow the direction of the great sage Hillel, who taught us to light one candle, then two, then three and so on through the holiday. His peer, Shammai, taught the opposite: Start with eight lights and remove one with each new day of the holiday. Hillel’s approach became our tradition because the human spirit needs to be nourished by the sight of light increasing.

So, as a Chanukah gift to my neighbors, here are a few lessons to consider during this Festival of Lights. I have learned these from Rabbi Simkha Weintraub of the National Center for Jewish Healing:

  • The Chanukah story is understood as a struggle for independence and a reassertion of religious identity. Those who are challenged by an injury or illness of any kind may or may not find a physical cure, but they can – with the help of God, tradition and community – re-establish their inner strength and achieve clarity, emergence and resolution.
  • We need a ninth candle – the shammash – to light the eight candles for eight days. It is a crucial partner in our efforts to illumine the holiday. The lesson is clear: We need partners to bring healing. Just as the shammash resembles all the other candles, so do we recognize that we find ourselves in both roles – as healer and healed – at different points in our lives.
  • Just as the small cruse of oil seemed far too little yet proved to be more than enough, perhaps it is possible to find that even in our own darkness, there is enough light. Perhaps we can learn from the darkness itself – to discover new kinds of vision, to discover an inner eye.
  • And lastly, a scriptural reading linked to the Sabbath of Chanukah offers a powerful message when we remember the victory of the Maccabees: “Not by might nor by power, but by My spirit, says the God of Hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). The lesson teaches that we should not over-invest ourselves in the power of our fists or physical strength. There is also a triumph of the spirit over suffering and the possibility of spiritual healing even when a physical cure is remote or impossible.

May this holiday season bring forth light like the dawn, and may God bring strength, renewal and hope to all.

RABBI FRED GREENE is the spiritual leader at Temple Beth Tikvah of Roswell, Ga. Rabbi Greene sees his rabbinate as opportunities to accompany people and support them on their Jewish journeys. He has been active in many areas of the Atlanta community and sits on the Boards of Trustees of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, the Atlanta Rabbinical Association and North Fulton Community Charities. Rabbi Greene received his bachelor of arts degree from Hofstra University, Long Island, a master of arts degree in Hebrew Literature and Ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Read more about Rabbi Greene by clicking here.

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