Chanukah: a winter reevaluation period

Religion, December 2010

Rabbi David Burstein

By Rabbi David Burstein, Temple Beth Or

The days are getting darker, the nights longer and we search for light. Our search leads us to gather as a community around the flames of tradition.

This month we will gather as Jews to celebrate the flames of Chanukah. We will light the chanukiah, say the prayers, sing the songs, eat latkes, and share the gift of family time.

As the darkness of winter keeps us inside physically, it is a wonderful time of the year for us to move inside ourselves spiritually.

Chanukah means “rededication” and symbolizes the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees and their armies.

Our secular calendar uses Jan. 1 as the day to reevaluate our lives. I would posit that Chanukah is our winter reevaluation period.

We are given eight days to illuminate the dark corners of our homes. Eight candles to bring warmth to the coldness and distance that has grown during the year in our families. Eight opportunities to enlighten ourselves and set up the rest of the winter and year.

Each winter the Men’s Circle at Temple Beth Or goes on a winter retreat. We travel to Hocking Hills and join together to spend Shabbat. This allows us to come together as men and explore our spirituality and masculinity in a safe environment.

Each night we light a fire and gather to talk, to pray, and to be with each other. This year, we will look at the book by Wayne Muller called How Then, Shall We Live? This book looks at the four fundamental questions for living a fuller life. They are:
• Who am I ? — What is my essential nature?
• What do I love? — What or who fulfills our lives?
• How shall I live, knowing I will die? — Recognizing that each moment in life is precious.
• What is my gift to the family of earth? — How do we uncover our own true gift?

These questions are important to engage with as Jewish men and women.

Chanukah is often associated with the giving and receiving of material gifts. This is a later tradition established almost in direct relation to American Christmas.

But the true miracle of the Chanukah season is the opportunity for rededication. And the opportunity to ask ourselves the important questions.

Who am I ?
Judah and the Maccabees felt so passionately about their Judaism that they were willing to put their lives on the line. They realized that in a world of secularism there is an inherent need for faith and tradition.

To them, the Temple represented the central role Jewish identity plays in one’s life. By rededicating the Temple through struggle, they were able to declare proudly their Judaism.
Who are you as a Jew in our secular world today? How do you actively search out ways of expressing Judaism? And how can you rededicate yourself to the Jewish path?

What do I love?
Chanukah is an opportunity to reconnect to family.  A chanukiah should be shared. Who do you want around your table? Reach out and connect especially with those distanced from us by misunderstanding or anger.

Offer the hand of peace, for we need to live with love to keep the candles burning long past the eight days of the initial miracle. It is how we love on the other 357 days that is the true miracle.

How shall I live, knowing I will die?
The soldiers of the Hasmoneans entered battle with the knowledge that this could be their last day. This focus led to the treasuring of each and every breath. A soldier knows that each moment is to be cherished, each moment appreciated for the simple act of living another day. We might not be soldiers but we face our own mortality on a daily basis. Each moment could be our last.

As Jews we recognize that as difficult as our impending demise may sometimes feel, it also can liberate us to truly live. By living each day as if it could be our last, we relate to each life experience passionately, powerfully, and memorably.

We live each day as a gift, one deserving our full gratitude.

What is my gift to the family of earth?
Chanukah is a time of giving. Long before eight nights of gifts, Chanukah was a story of sacrifice. A group of Jews willing to give their lives for their religion. The gift of complete sacrifice for a cause.

But the true gift we can give on Chanukah is the opportunity, the potential, to appreciate others and be appreciated by them for eight days in the darkest of days. The opportunity to light candles and gather as a community, as a family, when we need the warmth of each other the most. Chanukah may be a minor holiday. However, how we choose to honor it can be a major moment in our year.

This season, gather together with those important to you. This year, give gifts of time and care and presence not presents.

Rededicate yourselves to what is good in your lives and vow to face your challenges with honesty and integrity. May your holiday be one of insight and internal exploration. And may the light of your candles be a comforting warmth kindled by self reflection, commitment to love and to living, and the gift of your presence.

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