Darkness to Light: Five Lessons of Hanukkah

Our friends at Jewish Lights publishing house invite us to share a column related to their new book, Revolution of Jewish Spirit: How to Revive Ruakh in Your Spiritual Life, Transform Your Synagogue & Inspire Your Jewish Community.

5 Gifts to Unwrap at Hanukkah

By Rabbi Baruch HaLevi and Ellen Frankel, LCSW

CLICK THE COVER to visit the book’s page at Jewish Lights.HANUKKAH begins on the Hebrew calendar date of 25 Kislev, and lasts for eight days. This year, the holiday is celebrated from December 8–16. The story of Hanukkah chronicles the four-year war that took place between 167–163 BCE as oppressed Jews struggled under the rule of Antiochus IV of the Syrian-Greeks. Jews were forbidden to follow their ritual observances and pagan worship was introduced into their sacred Temple. It is also about a civil war between those Jews who aligned themselves with the Greek-Syrian ways and the Maccabees, a small group of Jews who resisted such assimilation. The holiday culminates in the retaking and rededicating of the Temple in Jerusalem. The long-ago story of Hanukkah offers lessons for people of all faiths wrestling with challenges today.

Here are five ideas that Hanukkah can teach us:


We have all experienced dark periods in our lives. Sometimes that darkness stems from an individual struggle, like the loss of a job, a loved one, or a sense of purpose in one’s life. At other times, it is a collective darkness, like the kind we all experienced on September 11, 2001, and in its aftermath. When darkness spreads it can lead to despair and hopelessness and it is important to recognize that place before we can transcend it. Sometimes, the situation calls for outward action; other times, what is needed is inward reflection. When the Maccabees revolted against the darkness they faced as a result of the increasingly harsh treatment imposed upon them, they chose outward action. When it came time to rededicate both themselves and their Temple, they called upon inward meditation to take the first step of faith by using the tiny amount of available oil to reignite the sacred light of the Temple and to rekindle their souls. In remembering that lighting, we see that our own light is never diminished when we share our light with others. As the days grow shorter and the air chills, the celebration of Hanukkah shines light into the darkness and teaches us to rededicate ourselves to kindling the flame of hope.


The Festival of Lights is also a story about seeking freedom in times of tyranny. Though small in number against a powerful group, the Maccabees fought to regain their rights and in the end triumphed as they reclaimed the Temple. These were ordinary people with extraordinary courage and commitment to fight for their freedoms. Today, we see people both at home and abroad who are oppressed and marginalized. We are reminded that it is incumbent upon us—ordinary men and women—to fight for justice where we see injustice, and for liberty where we see oppression. It is important that we fight on behalf of our own freedoms as well as those of our fellow human beings. As Rabbi Hillel so famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”


The concept of assimilation figures largely in the story of Hanukkah. How does a community or a group maintain its identity in relation to the culture at large? How much will it resist outside influences and how much will it embrace those influences? When the Maccabees revolted against the Syrian-Greeks, they were also revolting against a Hellenistic culture and philosophy. Yet, as a result of living within the culture at large, Judaism moved from being philosophically illiterate to becoming a systematic and coherent faith. From the Greeks, and later the Romans, they learned the principles of legal interpretation that became the method of interpreting Jewish law in the Talmud. Many of the words central to the Jewish faith are Greek words, such as synagogue, Diaspora and even the word Judaism, itself. Just as it is important to find the balance of retaining one’s culture and tradition—while also being open to the gifts of the larger community—so too must we find this balance in our personal relationships. How do we connect with others without losing ourselves? Hanukkah offers an opportunity to find the balance in retaining our identity while still being connected and involved with people and communities outside of ourselves.


Everyday we are faced with daunting tasks: solving the deficit, fighting discrimination, ending wars and seeking a more peaceful world. It can feel overwhelming just thinking about it—let alone figuring out where to begin. As the story of Hanukkah goes, when the Maccabees returned to their Temple after the war, the first thing they needed to do was to relight the eternal flame. But preparing more oil would take eight days. It would be easy to despair after years of fighting and now realizing that they were lacking the resources needed to move forward. Whether historically accurate or not—as the story of the Hanukkah miracle is retold each year: The Maccabees decided it had been too long since the eternal light had been ignited, so they took a first step. They committed themselves to starting the process of rededicating themselves and the Temple, one day at a time. They were amazed that their tiny amount of oil burned for eight days. During Hanukkah today, the shamash, or helper candle, is used to light an additional candle each night culminating in eight burning flames and reminding us that, by simply lighting one candle, we have the opportunity to light many candles. We are reminded of the words of the Talmud: “It is not upon you to finish the work, but you are not free to ignore it.” We each have a role to play in creating a better world by taking a first step, and then the next and the next.


The idea of miracles surrounds the year-end holiday season. When the menorah is lit, an opportunity is provided to tap into the miracle of light shattering the darkness and opening up a world of possibilities. This time of year is about the movement from darkness to light in both the spiritual and material world. Whether it’s a Hanukkah menorah that we kindle, or a Christmas tree light strung by neighbors, or the candles some families burn in celebration of Kwanzaa—we are collectively reigniting the flame of awe for the miracles before us every day when we open our eyes and our hearts. We celebrate the miracle of friends and family, the miracle of having the chance to learn something new everyday, the miracle of our collective curiosity, creativity and compassion that moves us forward in both our individual and our collective stories.

Ellen Frankel and Rabbi Baruch HaLeviAlbert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Too often, the holidays have become commercialized and the season can feel pressured with shopping, rushing and planning. Taking a step back can offer the opportunity to connect with the wisdom of tradition and to rekindle the spirit of today and the hope of tomorrow.

Want to Enjoy their Book? Visit Jewish Lights to learn more about Revolution of Jewish Spirit.

Want more about Hanukkah? Enjoy our column on the eight-day Festival of Lights.

Another festival of lights? Read about the Buddhist practice for Bodhi Day.

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