Like the winter festivals of light in cultures all around the world, Hannukah falls at the darkest time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. Not only are the nights growing longer but they are darker too, moving toward winter solstice. Additionally, Hannukah falls on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev, at a time when the moon is waning in a further darkening night sky.
Hannukah encourages us to literally light a fire in the darkness, to kindle light at the darkest time year. For those in the southern Hemisphere where Hannukah falls in the summer time (what?!), the lighting of candles has a similar yet inverse meaning of celebrating, growing, and expanding light.
For so many of us, the winter brings with it seasonal affective disorder and depression. A poignant yet anachronistic midrash (rabbinic story) tells of Adam, the first human, who grew so sad the first year of his life as the light was decreasing at this time of year until the holiday of Hannukah provided some much needed light. The story of Hannukah itself, though not in the Hebrew Bible, records the military victory of the Israelites, and the retelling of it in the Talmud (the rabbinic compendium of Jewish legal discourse) layers on the miracle of the oil lasting for 8 nights as a foundational narrative of hope for the Jewish people.
For these reasons, the themes of Hannukah are at once universal, communal, and yet personal as well.
The personal act of the lighting the candles, adding one each night, is to see the light increase when it would otherwise be decreasing at this time of year, can be deeply meaningful.
I have memories of my grandparents coming to spend Hannukah with me and my siblings when were kids growing up in West Hartford, Connecticut. Even today, when I close my eyes and see their faces illuminated by the glow of the candles, it brings tears to my eyes.
The practice of pirsum ha'neis (literally “publicizing the miracle” of Hannukah) of placing the Hannukah menorah in the window, is to proudly (often defiantly or dangerously) display the lit candles to passersby. In doing so, we multiply the lights in the reflection of the window as well, and offer the light of hope and renewal to those around us.
May the lighting of your Hannukah lights increase the light in your heart and in your soul.