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This week we welcome in the celebration of Hanukkah, the eight-day festival of lights. Marking an ancient military victory of the Jewish population over the ruling Greeks, Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting candles for eight nights, an enactment of the story of how when the victory was sealed, the Jewish community rededicated the desecrated Temple in Jerusalem. As the story goes, there was only enough oil to light the Temple lamp for one day, but it lasted for eight.
The meanings behind the holiday are many, especially as we think about the conflation of these two ideas. When we think about the military victory, we remember with gratitude the human agency which brings about freedom and liberation from oppression. When we think about the miracle of the oil, we remember with humility how there are forces beyond ourselves that impact our lives.
While Hanukkah carries its own internal significance, it also is connected to the significance of this time of year. First is the idea of lights themselves, celebrating light at the darkest time of year is not exclusive to Judaism, and we can find strength in recognizing the common theme of “light in darkness” and the yearning for the return of longer days with the passing of the winter solstice.
Also, while falling in the middle of the Jewish calendar year, Hanukkah falls in close proximity to the secular New Year. As a Jewish community, we marked Rosh Hashanah a few months ago, as a greater community we celebrate New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in a few weeks.
At Rosh Hashanah, we engage in cheshbon hanefesh (“soul accounting”)—a deep reflection on where we have been and where we are going. We examine our past behaviors and engage in the work of teshuvah, repairing our relationships with ourselves, with others, with God. We commit to being a better person in the coming year.
Around this secular New Year, we have a tradition of making “resolutions” — commitments to behaviors that we wish to improve ourselves. These tend to be more about “self-care,” such as going to the gym more, eating better, quitting [insert vice here]. While seemingly not as “deep” as the spiritual work we do on Rosh Hashanah, these are important commitments we can make that will improve us as people. (I’m going to commit to exercise, which I know will make me a physically and mentally healthier person.)
So rather than connect them to New Year’s, we can take this spirit of “resolutions” and apply it to Hanukkah. Recently in the Forward, language columnist Aviya Kushner explores the word Hanukkah, which we commonly translate as “dedication,” a reference to the rededication of the Temple that the holiday marks. Kushner writes,
What is especially fascinating about Hanukkah is not its appearance in the Bible or the prayers, but the roots of the word. Hebrew, after all, is a language made of triliteral roots; Hanukkah is constructed from the three-letter root chet, nun, chaf, which also happens to be the root of words having to do with teaching and education.
She then continues to explore the different forms of this root, connecting it to the idea of not only educating others but educating the self. And this dual idea is what leads to continuity of the Jewish people that is celebrated on Hanukkah. Dedication through education.
We can expand this concept as well. For we are always trying to grow and renew ourselves, and oftentimes this comes from exploring new things and new ideas—taking on the idea of “Self-education.” As this idea is embedded in the root of the word Hanukkah, then we can use this time to make new commitments to learning and growing—similar to “New Year’s resolutions.” So when we gather around our menorahs and light the candles, we can ask ourselves, what new “dedication” will you make for yourself in this coming year?