We, the Hanukkah Torches
One of my favorite Hanukkah songs as a kid was the one about "carrying torches in the deep, dark nights..." In my fertile imagination I saw how the torch would chase away the darkness, the evil, the fears. It even tried to chase away the shadows flitting in the background. The real torch, of course, I would have to light myself, with the help of my father.
It's been many years since I grew up and lost my childhood idea that a physical torch was enough to vanquish the evil in the world. But in time, I learned that those words could have a much deeper meaning.
The holiday commemorates a real historical event, where the people of Israel faced the mighty Greek Empire. In terms of culture, it was expressed as "Jerusalem vs. Athens". In geopolitics, it was "a clash of civilizations". But the eyes of faith see the story as "the Creator defending His children and His Name"! Spiritually speaking, it is a struggle that goes on until this very day.
It can be an individual struggle as well, and Hanukkah encourages us to lift up the Torch and keep it burning.
The Vessel / The Light in the Dark / The Oil
Today Hanukkah torches are not so common. Hanukkah lights are either candles set into a lampstand called a Hanukkiyah, or oil lamps with floating wicks. The oil lamps are becoming more popular in Israel, as something closer to the original Temple Menorah, which also used oil. Interestingly, the vessels used for Hanukkah can take a wide variety of forms, from simple bowls or cups to elaborate works of art. This makes it easy to see the oil-carrying vessel as ourselves.
The light? Our deeds, which are seen in six different directions: from above, from below, and from the four directions on the earth. Above stands the Lord GOD. Below is the ground from where we came (and to where we will go), as well as our source of provision from Him ("Who brings forth bread from the earth" - Ps. 104:14). And of course, the four directions on earth are our relations with those around us, wherever they may be.
However, light is noticed only when it's dark. Sometimes we have difficulties, or enemies who disturb some part of our lives, and we may find our thoughts going in a direction of defeat: I will never get past this difficulty; I'm alone with no one to help me, no one cares.... The holiday of Hanukkah reminds us that we can receive from our all-powerful God the strength to overcome even the most overwhelming wickedness, be it ever so strong and threatening.
The Greek Empire threatening the Jews was the strongest force in their world, ruling over vast territories besides the tiny land of Israel. The Greek vision was to bring to the world their "modern" philosophy and way of life, known as Hellenism. Its values included the sacred nature of the human body which prohibited "mutilations" such as circumcision. The beauty of the male physique was meant for public admiration, so Olympic athletes were required to compete in the games naked. Another Hellenistic idea was to make pigs the universal offering to all the gods throughout their empire.
Both sides knew what was at stake. The bringers of this "new and better faith" wanted to impose it on these stubborn, backward Jews. The Jewish rebels wanted to keep the commandments of GOD and walk in His ways. The Greeks felt it their duty to enter the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in order to enforce their custom in the Holy of Holies, thereby defiling the House where the God of Israel said He would dwell and hear the prayers of His people (1 Kings 8:41-43, 2 Chron. 6:32-33). Although the Jewish people knew they could meet with God anywhere, He Himself had chosen this city, this mountain, and this meeting place for His people to gather as one body before Him on His appointed feast days. They were horrified, yet helpless to stop the desecration.
For a time, it seemed that the might of Greece had buried all hope of returning to the ways God had commanded. What could the weak sons of Jacob do? How could their "outdated, antiquated" ideas stand up to this unstoppable force that had steamrolled over nations and cultures stronger than theirs? Many Jews gave up. Some even liked the idea and enthusiastically embraced Hellenism.
That brings us to the oil. There was one small pocket of Jews with the faith and courage to look to God, and the LORD of Hosts fought for them against the huge Greek army, chasing away the darkness, the evil and the shame of defilement.
It was a fight that would be repeated over the centuries, in different ways. Again and again Israel has struggled to keep the eternal Light burning, the pure knowledge of God contained in the Torah and Prophets. As a people, we have had some successes and many failures. Even now, when God has brought us back to our homeland and restored Jerusalem to us, global institutions are trying to deny that we have any historical ties to it at all. The Temple Mount, where the Hanukkah events ended in a restored and rededicated House of GOD, was given a "new, improved" name. It is just another attempt to please the latest would-be empire, which has claimed that mountain as its property.
Short on Oil? Expect a Miracle!
Hanukkah ends with the story of a miracle, in which one small jar of purified oil (enough to light the Temple Menorah for one day) managed somehow to last for eight days (the time it took to obtain more oil). No one ever attributed that to the skill of the priests, or the exceptional quality of the oil; it was a direct act of GOD. The only debate among our sages was, did the jar miraculously refill itself every day, or did the Menorah miraculously stay lit for eight days on one day's supply?
But people might ask: Why take the risk and hope for a miracle? Why not just get some lamp oil from the Jerusalem market? Isn't keeping the Menorah burning more important than insisting on special oil? Or, why not wait eight more days and light the Menorah when there was enough oil prepared? God would understand the delay, right?
Perhaps these ideas even occurred to the priests. But after all the obvious miracles God had done up to that point, defeating the invincible Greek military machine, restoring the Temple back to their control, allowing them to cleanse and rededicate it without opposition... it must have seemed logical to expect one more small miracle. How natural that GOD should provide the needed oil for His own House.
This is an important lesson for us. We are His Lights in His holy House - not hidden under a basket but part of a holy lampstand, which gives light to everyone entering the House. Our good works done in His Name are to give light to the world, so that people who see them will glorify our Father in Heaven. No ordinary oil from the streets of the world can be used to fuel those deeds - it must be the purest, finest oil without a trace of contamination!
The oil from God's House is a symbol of His Spirit, as we see in the story of David being anointed as king (1 Sam. 16:13). Proverbs 20:27 tells us that our souls hold this "light of Hashem". If we think we don't have enough of His oil, we must not look for a cheap substitute! But neither should we shrink back from what God has commanded us to do. We must step out with the little bit He has provided, and trust Him for the rest. This act of faith will become another miracle in our lives, to bring even more glory to God!
As we light the candles, or oil wicks, during Hanukkah, watching the darkness retreat before the tiny flames (the custom requires waiting until dark to light them), we add one more light each succeeding night. This symbolizes the way the miracle of Light, kindled by our simple acts of faith and fueled by the Spirit of the living God, can grow and spread to those next to us, bringing them hope, joy and faith in Him.
"The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; those dwelling in a land of death-shadow, a light has blazed over them!" (Isaiah 9:2, literal translation) This is the Light that we long to see return to Jerusalem, before the eyes of our people! And like the special candle on the Hanukkiyah called the "Shamash" (the "Servant" light which is used to kindle all the others), He will put His glory on us as well:
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you! ...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)
How's THAT for a miracle?!
May our prayer be like that in the Jewish prayer book: "May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy; blessed are You, O LORD, who returns His Holy Presence to Zion." We believe with total faith in His coming; and even if He delays, we will wait for Him in love.
May you be blessed with Light and Joy during this season,