What do the Hanukkah lights say to us?

I assume that nearly all my readers are familiar with the holiday of Hanukkah, the Festival of Light.

It’s a celebration of light winning over darkness, the revival of light on the holy lampstand in “the house of the GOD of Jacob” (Isa. 2:3), fueled by pure olive oil. Those who were faithfully cleansing the Temple, out of love for the GOD of Israel, had to hunt for lamp oil that was not defiled by the idolaters. They stubbornly kept looking, until they came to a neglected corner where one small jar had survived. Maybe someone had deliberately hid it there, when the Greek soldiers weren’t looking.

Did these Jews falter when they realized that the jar was only enough for one day? Or did they expect the miracle that eventually occurred, with the oil lasting until new holy oil could be prepared? That process took eight days, which is why we light the hanukkiah (the Hanukkah lampstand) for eight days.

Jewish custom explicitly forbids using the Hanukkah lights for any utilitarian purpose; they are “only to look at.” Thus, it is a beloved tradition that when the small candles of Hanukkah are lit, we take a break from our busy activities, and we sit for a few minutes… just to admire them. Let’s try to understand why that’s so worthwhile.

As we know, the lights are to remind us of the Menorah in the Temple. That seven-branched golden lampstand in turn was to remind us of the eternal Light that will appear when the Holy One redeems Jerusalem: “The light of the sun will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven days, on the day the LORD binds up the fracture of His people.” (Isa. 30:26) The Light of that one “day” will shine like “seven days” of ordinary light. This is the kind of Light that effortlessly banishes both physical and spiritual Darkness: “Your ears will hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ whenever you turn to the right or to the left.” (v. 21)

Most families place the hanukkiah in a window, so that others can also enjoy them. We see the room reflect the glow of the candlelight, and we dream with our eyes open. We watch the tiny flames dance and flicker, as they speak to us about “those days at this season.” Impossible victories over an invincible enemy. Courageous rebellion against an attempt to uproot our Jewish faith from the earth… one of many attempts from Abraham’s time until today. The lessons passed down from Abraham about the faithfulness of our GOD, and the need to sometimes push back against the denials in order to again prove His faithfulness.

The flickering lights on our hanukkiah tell us of that one small source of light, hidden in a dark corner of the ruined Temple, waiting for someone with enough faith to seek and find it. To pick it up and use it, even though it wasn’t enough. To expect the Creator to create a miracle, supplying whatever was needed to carry out His will.

I’m reminded of the story told to me by the principal of a school in Afula that Sabra Fund supports. A Jewish family in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power looked out a window of their home as Hanukkah arrived – and found themselves staring at a huge Nazi flag flapping across the street. They expressed their defiance by setting their hanukkiah in THAT window, so that their Nazi neighbors could see it. That small “jar” of pure faith belonged to the family of the principal’s wife; they now live in Israel.

The dancing lights on our hanukkiah tell us, in gentle whispers, a sweet secret: They are a ness. That Hebrew word means “a miracle,” but also “a banner raised on a pole” as a signal to gather others around it. Our faith in the Creator is that kind of ness – a small light raised high, to invite others to gather around the great Light. “Blessed are the people who know the joyful sound! LORD, they walk in the light of Your face.” (Ps. 89:15) When we walk in His Light, miracles can and do happen. Dreams seen with eyes of faith come true. Ruins are repaired, the defilement left by the enemy is cleansed, extinguished flames are rekindled.

The wavering lights on our hanukkiah declare that the arrogant, mighty Greek empire, which assimilated many other peoples and cultures, almost succeeded in swallowing up the Jews as well – except for a handful of believers in the LORD of heaven and earth, who refused to cooperate. Their small candles could not be put out. And as crazy as it sounds, those small candles expelled the darkness of Greek paganism from the land of our fathers.

But they knew why they had won the war: “‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of armies.” (Zech. 4:6)

The steadily burning lights on our hanukkiah tell us that through the many centuries when our people saw conquest and persecution, exile and assimilation… when a few candles of faith stayed lit, but many more went out… our GOD did not abandon us.

He never forgot His promises to bring us back and plant us in our own land. And sure enough, here we are.

The return of the exiles to Israel has always been a matter of faith expressed by a few. It started with the willingness of a handful of pioneers to reclaim the ruins of the Promised Land. But Israel is not like any other country. The “oil” used to regather the holy people of GOD could not be just nationalistic ambition. It needed to be pure and undefiled, with declared faith in the GOD of Israel.

As the saying goes, represented by the letters on the dreidel (sevivon, the traditional Hanukkah spinner): “A great miracle happened there.”

Despite the Zionist leadership in 1948 being strongly secular, a small “jar” of that pure faith was miraculously found and used. Israel’s Declaration of Independence ended with these words: “PLACING OUR TRUST IN THE ‘ROCK OF ISRAEL,’ WE AFFIX OUR SIGNATURES TO THIS PROCLAMATION.”

The rebirth of Israel was declared by the Jewish sages to be “the beginning of the Redemption” promised in the holy Scriptures. That one small “jar” of faith from 1948 could never be enough to last until the full Redemption comes. Yet somehow, it HAS lasted – for 75 years and counting! Regathered Israel stands as a bright, glowing ness, capturing the attention of the world.

But that light is not our own:

“Arise, shine; for your light has come – the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth, and deep darkness the peoples; but the LORD will rise upon you, and His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” (Isa. 60:1-3) 

The winking lights on our hanukkiah invite us to share their hope. “Come, house of Jacob, and let’s walk in the light of the LORD.” (Isa. 2:5) We renew our trust in the Rock of Israel (Isa. 30:29) as we sing the traditional holiday song: “Maoz Tzur Yeshuati…” (Refuge, Strong Rock, my Salvation…).

Our children gaze at the Hanukkah lights with shining eyes, just as we did when we were their age. Yes, my child – dream of miracles, and trust that great Light to perform them. One day He will come and shine like a beacon over Jerusalem, becoming the Ness to draw all nations to Himself (Isa. 2:3).

Now we can understand why we are not permitted to use the candles of the hanukkiah as “working” lights. Think of what we would be missing!

Likewise, if you light a hanukkiah during this holiday, take some time to sit and just look at it. Go ahead and dream. Be blessed by the Most High from Zion and Jerusalem,


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