This year, it is almost bittersweet to be celebrating eight long nights and days of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, in the context of all the darkness we see in the world. Attacks in Paris, terrorism and murder in Israel, protracted war in Syria; these disasters and others like them leave us deeply saddened by the overwhelming loss of life, angry at the evil that has led to these losses, and frustrated by the inability to end these intractable conflicts.
The situation is such that one could fall into depression – and rightfully so. How can we be expected to celebrate the miracle of Chanukah, when there is so much dissonance between the ideal of this joyous holiday and the reality of our current emotional state?
Furthermore, Chanukah falls specifically in wintertime. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, this is a time when the days get shorter and the nights longer. We are in a state of perpetual darkness, a time when our moods become darker and our propensity for depression increases. So, how can we be b’simcha and truly celebrate something about light, when we are surrounded by so much darkness?
Chanukah is the time we celebrate a special miracle – the miracle of finding that tiny amount of oil, just enough to make a tiny bit of light. But, when you look at the larger context in which this miracle occurred, it doesn’t seem right to make such a big deal out of a few energy efficient flames.
Think about it: the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) was in shambles. The entire building and its surrounding infrastructure was destroyed, burned and desecrated. And we get all excited over a few candles to the point where we say “ness gadol haya sham (a great miracle happened there)!” How can this be? Shouldn’t we have been focused on how gadol (great) the destruction was? Why make such a big deal over some tiny goodness, when there is still yet so much that needs to be repaired?
This is the lesson of Chanukah. Yes, we live in a broken world, a world filled with so much pain, fragmentation and sadness. The world needs so much fixing that we can become immobilized with fear. But we can’t let that fear stop us. We must fix what we can fix, light what we can light and rebuild our world piece by piece.
Just as we light the menorah one wick at a time – one on the first night, then with each night we increase gradually and slowly – so, too, must we dispel the darkness in our world and in our lives with one light at a time. Each and every one of us has this light within – and it just takes one small candle to light up a dark room.
Chanukah comes at the darkest time of the year, but, right after Chanukah, we reach the winter solstice, and the light starts coming back into our lives bit by bit, a little bit more each day. Chanukah teaches us to reach beyond our current sadness, to pull ourselves out of the fearful paralysis that is preventing us from fixing our world, and to do every small act we can to bring goodness, joy and light back into the world and into our lives.