Christmas had always been problematic for me. The incessant seasonal messages about peace and goodwill one the one hand and the relentless exhortations to buy, buy, buy on the other, aroused conflicting emotions in me. What was I supposed to feel and do? Consequently, I wound up feeling simultaneously depressed, inadequate, and over-stimulated, year after year. So, as a Jew-by-choice, I looked forward eagerly to celebrating my first Hanukkah.
In the beginning, I was pretty much in the dark about what the holiday meant beyond something about a military victory in the distant past and the Temple menorah that burned for eight days on one day¹s supply of oil. I asked questions, read, and talked to friends who had been celebrating it all their lives. Yes, Hanukkah is about the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians, and the miracle of the lamps. But, there is much more, as I discovered.
Family and tradition play a large part in any Jewish holiday. The family can be of origin, adopted, blended or extended; the tradition can be one or a thousand years old. What matters in the meaning for the individuals involved. I¹m fortunate to be a member of an extended family whom I have known for 35 years. In fact, they gave me the menorah that I use to celebrate Hanukkah. My menorah came from the wife¹s father¹s house, one of the many connections between us. What it didn¹t come with was instructions. So, while I lit the appropriate number of candles each night, I improvised the order of setting and lighting, and I said the required blessings, sometimes twice, just to be sure. OK, I thought, now what? There were no others around to talk, play games, or eat with, so I settled down in a club chair in my living room and focused on the soft, glowing light of the candles. The electric lights in the room seemed to dim as the bright hanukkiah (a special menorah holding eight candles, one for each day that the lamps burned) filled my consciousness. There was peace; there was quiet; a sanctified time. Nothing extraneous. Experiencing that time apart revealed to me the meaning of Hanukkah.
The Maccabean victory and the miraculously-burning Temple lamps speak of freedom from oppression, of light banishing darkness, of re-dedication to the principles that guide our lives. Sitting in that room suffused with the light of the hanukkiah, I reflected on the things that restrict my freedom to be who I want to be, and resolved to change what I can and accept the rest. I gave thanks for the light that drives away the darkness in this season of the year and at this time in my life. And I realized that re-dedication is a process, not an event.
Today, Hanukkah occupies the foreground of my life and the hype and hustle surrounding Christmas have receded into the background like a noisy party down the block. That,I can live with. In the Diaspora, the little spinning tops called dreidels carry the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hey, and shin, one on each side. The are the initial letters of Nes gadol haya sham, "A great miracle happened there." In Israel, the final letter on the top, called a sevivon in Hebrew, is pey for po, "here." "A great miracle happened here." Nes gadol haya po. That¹s true for me, too.