By Rabbi Jon Cutler
“Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon; and he shaved himself, and changed his garment, and came to Pharaoh.” (Genesis 41:14)
The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) asks the question “What is Chanukah?”
“What is the reason for Chanukah? For our Rabbis taught: On the 25th of Kislev begin the days of Chanukah, which are eight, during which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they (the Hasmoneans) searched and found only one cruse of oil which possessed the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient oil for only one day’s lighting; yet a miracle occurred there and they lit (the lamp) for eight days. The following year these days were appointed a Festival with the recitation of Hallel and thanksgiving.”
The rabbis made a conscious decision not to focus on the military victory against the Syrian-Greeks but on God’s miracle of the oil. In addition, the rabbis decreed that every Chanukah we read the verses from the prophet Zachariah, “Not by might and not by power but by my spirit says the Lord” (Zechariah 4:6).
Since the rabbis chose not to focus on the Maccabees or their military victory, perhaps that is the reason why the book of Maccabees never made it into the Tanakh. And maybe that is the reason why the true history of Chanukah is confusing.
So, what is the story behind the story? It is no coincidence that Chanukah falls around the time of the winter solstice (Dec. 21), the shortest and darkest day of the calendar year. It is no coincidence that Christmas, the Christian festival of lights, falls around the same time.
The story of Chanukah is how light can push away darkness. It is a story of how hope can push away despair. It is a story that there are times our lives appear dark, when blackness seems to overwhelm us, we should not give up. Each night we light one more candle, and by the eighth night the fullness of the menorah can push away the darkness.
This idea is central to the portion we read on Shabbat Chanukah, Miketz. At the beginning of the portion, we find Joseph suffering in prison for a crime he did not commit. He has been forgotten. Then Joseph is pulled from prison, interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and is given responsibility for gathering food in Egypt during the days of plenty to feed the people during the seven years of famine. At the end of the portion, Joseph becomes the second most powerful person in Egypt.
There were probably many moments when Joseph was languishing in prison, he lost hope. Prison is a place of darkness and despair. During those moments Joseph could not have imagined that one day he would be second in charge in all of Egypt. But out of those moments of despair came light.
There were moments throughout Jewish history especially when darkness seemed to be final answer. When the first Zionist Congress met in Basel, Switzerland, on Aug. 29, 1897, one could have imagined that 51 years later there would be a Jewish state. It all started with an idea, one candle.
Today Israel is a vibrant and powerful nation.
Chanukah is about using little candles, little flames of light, to push away the darkness. It is about moving from despair to hope. And that is why Chanukah is so important this time to remind us there is always hope.
Every generation is faced with dark moments. Today, we live in moments of darkness with the frequency of gun violence, more and more hate groups, extreme antagonism between groups and an increase of tribalism. During these moments, it seems that darkness is spreading and is uncontrollable.
Chanukah comes to teach us that we cannot allow darkness to overwhelm us. We must light candles, candles of hope, and place these candles in our windows for everyone to see. Following Rabbi Hillel, we must increase the number of candles each night, adding to the amount of light. We must use one candle to light another candle, spreading the light from person to person. We must react to the darkness and despair not with more darkness and despair but with goodness and hope; we must encounter hatred with love.
As John F. Kennedy said, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
Rabbi Jon Cutler is the rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.