Why Chanucah echoes the light of Creation

We find a prophetic glimpse of next week’s festival in the opening words of Genesis


By Rabbi David Lister, November 25, 2010
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Chanucah is a post-prophetic festival, whose history is found in the Apocrypha and the Talmud. It recalls the Greeks' occupation of Israel and their attempt, under the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes, to assimilate the Jewish people into oblivion around 167 BCE. We celebrate the Maccabees' reassertion of Jewish control over the land of Israel, and the miracle of the Temple menorah, which only had one night's worth of pure olive oil but which shone for eight nights until more oil could be procured.

There is an interesting conjunction of biblical word and number which hints at a much earlier provenance for this festival.

Chanucah is our festival of light. Winter nights draw in, the world gets darker. Then, around the winter solstice on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, we light the menorah.

The Genesis story makes a similar transition from darkness to light. Initially the text depicts a dark world (1:2). But this darkness is suddenly illuminated at God's command (1:3). The slight connection with Chanucah is that ohr, the word for light, is the twenty-fifth word of the biblical narrative, recalling the start of Chanucah on the twenty-fifth of Kislev.

We can understand this subtle prophecy as an indication that the Chanucah triumph had been planned by God right from the start of history.

But we can look at this more deeply and derive a further lesson from the text regarding the interaction between God and His creatures. If the appearance of light as the twenty-fifth word in the story points to the start of Chanucah, then we can discern a subtext in the previous twenty-four words, communicating God's view of the build-up to the Chanucah triumph and His relationship with us in times of trouble.

To access this, all we need to do is reread the first few views of Genesis with an eye to the Chanucah story. The result is a biblical commentary on Chanucah.

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."

The start of this primeval Chanucah story reminds us pointedly that God made the universe. Even the earth, given over to human jurisdiction, was to be a context for the accomplishment of His will, and it was to be hallowed in His service. This was especially the case for the land of Israel, home of God's chosen people.

"But the land was shockingly desolate."

The Greeks invaded Israel and Jews embraced the newcomers' beautiful, exotic ideas. Israel may have been graced with the finest sculpture it had ever seen, but its precious sanctity, its link with God, was blasted away. The priesthood was up for sale, and the ceremonies of the Temple were abandoned since they did not fit in with the new spirit of the times. Spiritually, Israel was degraded from a Garden of Eden to a barren wasteland.

"There was darkness on the face of heaving depths."

Torah study and practice are compared to light (Proverbs 6: 23). But at the time of the Greek occupation of Israel, this light guttered and sank down. Disorientated, bereft of Torah wisdom, the Jews cast around for a firm spiritual bedrock to their lives, and they found only bottomless confusion and upheaval. Judaism and Jews were on shifting ground.

"But the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters."

Even when we sank away from God, He did not abandon us. He saw us swamped by the flood of Greek influence, and came to our aid.

"Then God said, 'Let there be light'"

The Maccabee revolution was not an act of secular nationalist self-determination. It was prompted by God whispering in the people's hearts, encouraging them to save their souls and live up to their destiny.

Inspired and supported by God, the people sparked an uprising which hurled the invaders back from Jerusalem and, more importantly, rekindled confidence in our heritage.

"And there was light."

We should have been outnumbered and defeated, but God decreed our victory for the sake of His light. Against the odds, the light of Torah burned again in Jewish homes, and the Greeks on the twenty-fifth of Kislev. This stunning victory was aptly complemented by the miracle of the light of the menorah, which, like the Jews and their Torah, should have dimmed and died but endured in a supernatural way.

When we light the menorah again and again each night of Chanucah, we remember our duty to God's light in this world. It is our privilege and responsibility to tend this light tirelessly, repeatedly, protecting it in our own age from an unprecedented plethora of competing ideas and temptations. We wage a dogged spiritual battle, but the prize is well worth it, and God Himself will be there to inspire us afresh if we lose heart, until His light brightens the whole world and darkness will be banished forever.

Or, as Genesis puts it:

"Then God saw that the light was good."

David Lister is rabbi of Edgware (United) Synagogue and author of the forthcoming 'Intergalactic Judaism'

    Last updated: 12:30pm, November 25 2010