How might we kindle an inner light during this dark, traumatic time for our people?
Many of us will gather this Hanukkah to light the menorah as the days grow shorter and darkness prevails. On the surface, this act continues to affirm, as it did during the time of the Hasmoneans more than two thousand years ago, that even as our people are enveloped in the darkness of persecution at the hand of those who would annihilate us we can hold fast to the light of our faith. Certainly, kindling the lights for all to see will take on a heightened level of immediacy and power this year as we affirm that we stand strong in our Jewish values and refuse to cower in the shadows of our fear in the face of rising antisemitism.
But the Hanukkah lights point to something subtler too. According to the kabbalistic tradition there’s a link between the story of Jacob – who wrestled with an adversary throughout the night and emerged victorious, earning the name Israel – and the Hanukkah story, a link that suggests how we might kindle an inner light.
According to the biblical narrative of Genesis 32, after making preparations for battle against his brother Esau and sending his whole encampment ahead beyond the Western side of the Jabbok river, Jacob remained alone on the Eastern banks. Paraphrasing a teaching offered in the Talmud (Hullin 91a), the 11th century French commentator Rashi explains why Jacob remained alone: “He had forgotten some small jars and he returned for them” (on Genesis 32:25).
The Galician hasidic teacher Naftali of Ropshitz (1760-1827) cites the kabbalistic tradition that teaches that the jar of oil that the Hasmoneans would use hundreds of years later to rekindle the Menorah after defeating the Syrian Greeks was among the small jars Jacob had forgotten:
It is written in the mystical books regarding the verse “Jacob remained alone” that the very jug of oil from the Hanukkah story was among the small jars [that Jacob had forgotten]…He specifically went back for those small jars in order to draw down blessing (Zera Kodesh, Homilies for the Festivals, Hanukkah).
Why did the Kabbalists see fit to link Jacob’s small jars with the cruz of oil used by the Hasmoneans to rekindle the lights in the Temple? Perhaps they were trying to convey that during times of great struggle and darkness when our people are under attack, we tend to forget the power of the smallest and simplest of vessels as sources of immense blessing and strength. In the frenzy of trying to manage our fear, anxiety, grief, trauma, and hypervigilance, we may completely forget the subtle sources of light that lie within waiting to be magnified and enhanced so they might shine brighter than we may have ever imagined possible.
Our practice reminds us that it doesn’t take much to kindle an inner light to fortify ourselves for the dark night ahead. Becoming aware of the sensations of our feet firmly planted on solid ground; taking a few deep, mindful breaths; placing a hand on our heart and lovingly affirming, “Sweetheart, in this moment you’re safe”; bringing those who are suffering to mind and wishing them ease and well-being; recognizing the fragility and preciousness of this human life and being more present and grateful with those we love; reaching out to our family and friends in Israel and letting them know that we care – all of these are small vessels that, when opened regularly, contain the fuel with which to kindle a great light within, one that can nurture our courage, wisdom, compassion, resilience, and responsiveness during this painful, dark time and beyond.