By Matisyahu and Netanel Miles-Yépez
So many of our friends are picking up the pieces of their lives this Hanukkah . . . in New York and New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and in southern Israel after the missile attacks there. And it reminds us that the troubles and conflicts found in the Hanukkah story are not just a thing of the past; they’re not ‘history’ for us, but a reality to which we can actually relate. Just as there were wars and troubles in that time, there are wars and troubles today—natural disasters and personal catastrophes that make a mess of our lives. But this is not the message of Hanukkah; that bad things happened to us then and continue to happen to us now. The message of Hanukkah is that miracles occurred at that time and also occur in our lives today.
What was the real miracle of Hanukkah? Some people say it was that a little band of Jewish rebels managed to defeat a numerically superior army of Greeks, an army who had taken over their land, and who had desecrated their Holy Temple. Others say it was the miracle of the oil; that the last little cruse of ritually prepared oil, somehow, lasted for the entire eight days it would take to make new oil for the Temple menorah. But maybe, just maybe, the real miracle was the miracle of re-dedication, of starting over and starting again.
The Hebrew word hanuk, means ‘to dedicate.’ And when we use the word, hanukkah, we are really talking about the ‘re-dedication’ of the Temple after it had been desecrated, and about the ‘re-dedicating’ of our lives to a relationship with the Source of All. So when our forbears decided to call the holiday Hanukkah, it is clear that they wanted to emphasize the aspect of it that has to do with starting again. But what is so miraculous about starting again and re-dedicating ourselves to something? The answer is: it represents something indestructible in us, something that hopes against hope, that gets up when all the evidence says that we’ll probably just get knocked down again later! To live inspired by hope is a true miracle in our world.
Sometimes this message about ‘re-dedication’ gets lost amid all the other themes of Hanukkah, amid all the dreidel-spinning parties filled with latkes and doughnuts. But if we really think about it, it makes Hanukkah one of the most personal of the Jewish holidays. After all, who hasn’t had to pick up the pieces of their lives? It doesn’t take a hurricane or a missile to make a mess of them. Often, we do a pretty good job of it ourselves. And when we are sitting there, amid all the rubble and ruin of it, we have to make a decision: will we get up and start again, or will we just lie down? All the miracles of the Hanukkah story start when Judah Maccabee and his followers decided to get up and fight back, when they decided to re-take the Temple and clean it up, and when they made the decision to re-light the Temple menorah with the oil they had, instead of waiting until they could make more.
All it takes is a little light, a little hope to get started. Every year, Hanukkah comes around the winter solstice, at the darkest point of the year, when we are often feeling most tired and most hopeless. But it is also at this point that things begin to change, and the light begins to increase, little-by-little, like the candles in the menorah. There is a very deep teaching from the Jewish mystical tradition that we need to remember in our darkest hours: just as the Jews who cleaned the Temple found one little cruse of oil to burn amid all the wreckage, all of us have a yehidah, a tiny point in our souls that is always pure and in contact with God, no matter how much the rest of us feels broken-down and destroyed. There is always something—a little spark of divinity, a little oil to make a ray of light to shine in the darkness—something we can take hold of and use to re-build our lives.
This Hanukkah, let's all remember that holy point within us, that little light that is always pure, that gives us a hope that we can share with everyone around us. Let’s practice the miracle of re-dedicating ourselves to a purpose, whether it be to helping others re-build their lives, or to starting again in our own lives; because that’s where the happiness of Hanukkah comes from.
Wishing you all a very Happy Hanukkah,
Matisyahu and Netanel Miles-Yépez.
* All proceeds from Matisyahu’s new song “Happy Hanukkah” will be donated to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy.