So here's the thing: I'm still working on forging a mature, adult relationship with this holiday. In the family I come from, Chanukah is largely for kids. Adults don't make a big deal out of it (because it's a minor festival), but children do (because it involves presents). My memories of childhood Chanukahs center around candle-lighting, potato latkes, and blue-and-silver-wrapped gifts spilling out of the huge plexiglass dreidel on the dining room sideboard. I have no idea where that dreidel came from; Mom probably had it made. One year she let me paint Hebrew letters on the sides.
I became bat mitzvah over Shabbat Chanukah because that was a weekend when far-flung family could conveniently make it to San Antonio. That year my middle brother, the woodworker, made a giant chanukiyyah so we could light 12" tapers at the Saturday night bat mitzvah party. (Yes, my family has a fascination with extra-large ritual items. I have an enormous mahogany dreidel, made by the same brother, which adorns my coffee table at this time of year. Look, Texans like big stuff, I can't really explain it.)
The plexiglass dreidel has vanished into memory; the giant chanukiyyah lives at my parents' house still. After the custom of my family, I don't make a big deal out of Chanukah now, though I do give small gifts to my younger nieces and nephews. Relegating it to "minor kids' gift festival" seems a little shallow, though. I'd like to find something resonant in Chanukah. I look for religious significance in all of the Jewish festivals, so I've been thinking about what parts of this holiday have meaning for me.
On the one hand, I feel obligated to note upfront that it's kind of odd how mainstream American culture makes such a big deal out of Chanukah. It really is a minor holiday in the Jewish scheme of things. Arguably the only reason it's ascended to a place of such prominence is because Christmas turned into a potlatch extravaganza and Jews wanted a gift-giving holiday at midwinter too. We shoehorned our nearest festival into the role, which means that Chanukah is our most assimilated holiday -- ironic, since the story at its heart has to do with battling assimilation. (I blogged about that last year.)
On the other hand, there's more to the festival than winter gift-giving -- or even the Maccabees' against-all-odds military victory. (I'm not very interested in the military triumph narrative, though I like the reading of it which suggests that small bands of right-minded individuals can defeat even the most overwhelming empire.)
I like the story about the consecrated oil that miraculously lasted for eight days, and its message that leaps of faith will be rewarded. I like, also, the way that (following the practice of the sage Hillel) the lights on the chanukiyyah increase over the course of the week: as we approach the darkest time of year in this hemisphere (in New England, mid-December is plenty dark for me, though it's not as bad as, oh, Nunavut at this season), I like the way this holiday observance reminds me that light increases. Since light is an obvious metaphor for all manner of good stuff (divine presence, wisdom: there's a reason for the play on words in the term "enlightenment"), I like having a festival of lights at this time of year.
This year the piece of the Chanukah story that speaks to me most is the notion of (re)dedication. As you surely know, the Chanukah story tells us that once the Syrians had been defeated, the Temple was found in a sorry state: altar desecrated, ner tamid (eternal lamp) extinguished. The Temple had to be cleaned up and made fit for use again. In those days, the Temple was the place where the people connected with God, so having it in disarray was serious stuff indeed.
In this day and age, we connect with God through prayer, at table and in synagogue, when we lie down and when we rise up, in our homes and when we walk out into the world. If Chanukah celebrates the rededication of the Temple in bygone days, what resonance might that have for us today, and how can we translate it into our own paradigm? Maybe we've been insufficiently dedicated to sanctifying our own lives. Maybe we don't stop to connect often enough. Maybe we're overwhelmed with work, or with the chaos of the so-called holiday season, and that's become our excuse for not praying, not meditating, not reaching out to what's highest and most holy in our understanding of the world. Maybe the Temple of our hearts is a little dusty, a little besmirched, a little bit in need of some cleaning and some repair.
So here's my pre-Chanukah hope: as we light our Chanukah lights this week, may we find in the ritual of candle-lighting and in the pause of blessing an impetus to clean up and rededicate our hearts. The world is plenty dark, and though the candles bring light in a literal sense, it's up to us to bring light in the more important metaphorical sense. May we rededicate ourselves to aligning ourselves with our Source, and drawing on the strength of that connection to heal what's broken in our world.