When we gather to begin the celebration of Hanukkah next Thursday night, we will perhaps retell the story of the “miracle” of Hanukkah–that a little amount of oil that was only supposed to burn for one day burned for eight.
As the story goes, once the Maccabees defeated the Greeks for independence, the Jews found the holy Temple in Jerusalem defiled and in disarray. They set about restoring it to make it fit once again to serve as the spiritual center of the people. One aspect of the Temple practices as ordained by the Torah is that within it there must be a lamp continuously lit, and in doing so the Maccabees only found one vial of sanctified oil that could be used, only enough for one day and therefore not enough to last until new oil could be produced. They lit it anyway, and it stayed lit for eight days, hence the eight days of Hanukkah.
The reasons and origins of Hanukkah are more complex than that. Other sources link Hanukkah and its eight days with a delayed celebration of the Festival of Sukkot. The Talmudic rabbis emphasized (invented?) the story of the lamp to downplay a celebration of a military victory over an occupying power as they themselves were occupied by Rome at the time. And having a festival of light during the darkest time of the year is not something that is exclusive to Judaism but found in many cultures.
But regardless, the story of the oil carries power and meaning. And for me, this year, I am feeling like that one vial of oil because I feel like I have limited resources.
For this is my confession: since the High Holidays, I fell that I have not been running at my full capacity or potential. It is with regret that I am sure you have noticed: my “weekly” email has come out sporadically, I have been slow to respond to correspondence, I’ve made more errors, I’ve missed appointments, I’ve procrastinated. My TikTok videos notwithstanding, I do not feel I have been very productive.
I share this not as an excuse, but to make common cause. We are living in very difficult and trying times. A several month inconvenience is stretching to last a year and a half if not more. A deadly illness runs through our communities unchecked. We have been trained to be distant and suspect of everyone we meet, even our closest loved ones. Our times, our routines, our daily expectations have been overturned. Even for those of us who like some solitude, the lack of any meaningful personal interaction is draining. The messages from the highest levels of government are sporadic, unpredictable, and disorienting, and will be a disruptive force for years to come. And now as we enter winter, the lack of daylight affects me as I’m sure it does some of you.
This is where we all are, we are all like that little vial of oil. It is expected (hoped?) that we do eight times our capacity, and it will be a miracle if we can pull it off.
So let’s ask: what if the light did go out after one day? Or maybe hung on for another 12-24 hours? Would that have been so bad? The hoped for continuous light would have been interrupted, but not forever. It’s just that the long awaited dedication of the Temple would have had to been put off for a couple of days. The Maccabees in that case would simply have had to lower their expectations. They would have to accept the wait not as a failure, but as a recalibration of their plans. They would have had to delay gratification because they knew that whatever ultimately could be would be better than what was.
This is where we are now. It is Ok to recognize that things are different, and that we try the best we can, and that we are going to come up short. It is Ok to be low energy, to feel like you are underperforming. It is Ok to be scared, and despairing, and tired. The response is not to think we are failures, but that we are in the times that we are. Things will get better, and we will hopefully will emerge better and with greater wisdom. We are all doing our best, so let’s give ourselves permission to come up short sometimes. And by doing so, we provide much needed support for one another during these hard times.
This Hanukkah, as with every Hanukkah, we light light our menorah mindful of the story of an ancient miracle. This year, let’s hold the intention that whatever light we produce, it will be sufficient.