It’s no coincidence that our festival of Chanukah occurs so close to the winter solstice; the days are short and the nights are long. Darkness is all around. Nature has gone to sleep; in some areas, even a deep sleep. Frost has killed much of the summer’s growth and we have to wait patiently as the days slowly grow longer even as the average temperatures may grow colder.
As a metaphor, winter represents the gloom of death and despair. What better time to be able to celebrate a festival that brings light and hope into such a moment in our lives?
In the course of the eight days of Chanukah, we add another psalm to our morning and evening services: Psalm 30, “A psalm of the dedication of the House – of David.” The word “Chanukah” means “dedication,” and the “House” mentioned here is none other than the great Temple which stood in Jerusalem.
To review the story in brief: at the juncture in history in which the events of Chanukah took place, the land of Israel was under the rule of the Emperor, King Antiochus Epiphanes. He attempted to unite his empire by compelling those under his rule to take on the Greek religion. He transformed the Holy Temple into a shrine to worship the Greek god, Apollo, and slaughtered pigs on the altar. The Jews were forced to abandon the study of Torah and the practice of the Divine commandments. There were those who succumbed to the pressure, but the priest of Modin, Mattathias, along with his five sons refused to accept the decree and mounted a series of guerrilla campaigns against the Emperor and his armies.
Ultimately, the rebels were successful and were even able to enter Jerusalem, only to find the Temple in a state of desecration. It would be necessary to cleanse and rededicate it. The question on everyone’s mind: Would this act be acceptable in the sight of God?
As the Talmud relates: after going thorough all the necessary steps in the process of rededication, it was now necessary to light the great menorah in the shrine. This required the purest of pure olive oil. It was already a miracle that a jug was found containing a small amount of the requisite oil, bearing the seal of the High Priest and still intact. There was little expectation that the amount of oil would even burn for one day.
Miraculously, it burned for eight days. This amount of time allowed the Jews to produce more oil, which would ensure that the menorah could continue to burn. This miracle was evidence that their act of rededicating the Temple was, in fact, acceptable.
In the midst of a dark, bleak period, the light of hope was rekindled.
To cite a small portion from psalm 30 which combines the themes of Divine rescue and dedicating the Temple:
“I exalt you, O Ad-nai, for You have drawn me up;
And have not allowed my enemies to rejoice over me.
… You changed my mourning to become my dancing;
You loosened my sackcloth and have girded me with joy,
So that (I might) sing of Your glory and never be silenced;
Ad-nai my God, I will thank You without ceasing.
And may the lights of Chanukah shine forever all your days.