Chanukah is known as the Festival of Lights. It is of course the holiday during which we light candles so that makes sense in and of itself, but there is something more that most of us are missing.
There are several stories told of the origin of Chanukah and there are even some interesting discussions among the rabbis as to how many candles to kindle each night and why.
In very ancient times, it may well have been a solar calendar based holiday. I had a professor at Hebrew Union College who argued that the holiday should be celebrated during the last eight nights of the year. You might recognize those dates: Dec. 24 through Dec. 31 with the days being Dec. 25 through Jan. 1.
This holiday has had its religious and spiritual significance largely ignored. For children today, it is a story about oil lamps lasting longer than they should have. Yet, few of the children have ever even seen an oil lamp and virtually no one today has any idea how long one should normally last. The story of the miracle is a story about something to which today’s children, with microwaves and ultra-long lasting neon bulbs, cannot connect. One can imagine the question, "Daddy, why didn't they use environmentally friendly neon bulbs? They last a lot longer than eight nights." With that thought process, even if the cruse of oil lasted eight nights instead of one, it isn't much of a miracle.
There are stories about the festival as celebration of victory over tyranny, of the restoration of sacrifices in the Temple, of combating assimilation. At different times each of these stories has helped some of our people connect to Chanukah, but do they speak to us today, here and now?
I think that few adults who are not among the more religiously observant give a thought to Chanukah. Most consider it a holiday for the children, even among the more observant. If they know the less fantastic stories of the origin of Chanukah, they feel little connection to them and Chanukah slips by without much notice beyond a few latkes and some indigestion.
It should not be so. Sometimes friends, we miss the forest looking through the trees. Chanukah is a Festival of Light at the darkest time of the year. Chanukah is a festival of hope. The word “Chanukah” literally means “Dedication”. It is possible that this name comes from the story about the rededication of the Temple by the Hasmoneans (a.k.a. Maccabees) as Josephus suggests or perhaps that Chanukah was a festival during which the Temple was rededicated every year, possibly long before Judah Maccabee's day.
However, setting all of the explanations aside, take a moment to consider this: at times when things are dark, not just absent light but bitterly cold, that time of year when we may easily become sad, and gray days seem to lead on to gray days; how vital could Chanukah be for us as adults, a Festival of Light, a time of rededication, of remembrance of the good, of hope and light in our lives.
It is said that the miracle increased from night to night. May the hope and joy in our hearts so increase. May this Chanukah be one that brings more light into our homes and our lives.