Chanukah: Celebrating in the Hard Times

Dear Rabbi Fried,

I’m having a hard time feeling joyous and to celebrate Chanukah with so many fellow Jews being murdered and maimed and living with fear in Israel. Should we perhaps not celebrate Chanukah this year, or at least consider it a solemn day instead of a joyous one under the circumstances?


Dear Kaylie,

Allow me to answer your question the Jewish way, with a story.

A couple of years ago in Israel, a Rabbi Yaakov Litman, a distant relative of mine, was driving with his family to spend Shabbat with the family of the soon-to-be groom of his daughter, Sarah. It was the Shabbos of the oif-ruf, the Shabbos which precedes the wedding.  On the way he and his son were brutally shot and murdered by a Palestinian terrorist. The following week was spent by the family sitting shiva rather than celebrating a wedding. 

A few weeks later, the bride, Sarah Litman, and her groom Ariel Bigel invited all of the Jewish people to celebrate their wedding. Jews from America raised funds by crowd funding to help defray the costs. So many looked for ways to participate even if they couldn’t be there. The couple, who sent out an invitation for all of Klal Yisrael to join them, began the invitation with the verse “Do not rejoice over me, my enemy, for although I have fallen I have risen back up”.

There was not a dry eye at that wedding, I wept while watching it online. I have never seen a greater wedding celebration, with so many thousands in attendance. Since there were far too many to fit inside the hall, many were dancing outside the hall in tandem with all those celebrating inside. The Jewish people across the world felt this was their wedding and that no terrorist can stop the Jewish people from their celebration. 

The deeply rooted belief and conviction of the Litman and Bigel families, both families of Torah scholars, broadcast a message to the world that despite the many, brutal attempts to stop us, Am Yisrael Chai!

Let’s try and understand this a little more and apply it to the question of celebrating Chanukah despite the difficult times. 

Chanukah is unique in the way it is observed vis-à-vis other holidays. The mitzvos we fulfill on Jewish holidays are normally performed during the day. One can only shake a lulav, blow a shofar during the day. These mitzvos cannot be fulfilled at night. [The Passover seder is an exception which we shall discuss at a different time].

On Chanukah we fulfill the primary mitzvah of the holiday, the lighting of the candles, at night. On the surface this is because the miracle was performed via the menorah which is lit at night. On a deeper level, this carries a profound message – the lesson of Chanukah.

Day and night in our tradition are more than simply the appearance or absence of the sun. These two periods which make up a day are representative of two distinct ways which God reveals Himself.

-The “days” are times of revelation such as performing the miracles of Pesach. 

-The “nights” are the times that God hides Himself from us such as times of pogroms, inquisitions and the deep darkness of the holocaust. 

This explains a fascinating point. All of the Jewish holidays take place during the summer. In our tradition, Pesach begins the summer, followed by Shavuos, and summer comes to an end on the last day of Sukkos. No holidays are celebrated in the winter. [Chanukah and Purim which are celebrated in winter are rabbinical holidays and don’t appear in the Torah]. Why is this so? 

 The answer is the following, according to the deeper sources. 

-In summer the days are longer than the nights. This means that in summer the light overcomes the darkness; the revelation of God overcomes His hiddenness in this world. 

-The winter, however, when the nights are longer than the days, the darkness overcomes the light. This represents that the hiddenness of God overcomes His revelation. During such times, it’s easy to forget there’s a God or to think He has forsaken us. For this reason, the holidays, which are times of open revelation, do not take place during the darkness of winter, rather during the light of summer. 

Truth be told, the situation preceding the Chanukah miracle was quite bleak. The overall feeling that had enveloped the Jewish people during the Syrian-Greek exile was that of darkness. Most that mattered to the Jews; their freedom of religion, their observance and Torah study and their schools, were all closed and taken away from them. The Temple was shuttered. The ritual of bris milah was outlawed together with many other precious mitzvos. The Jewish future looked dark and foreboding.

This is precisely the message of Chanukah. It is observed during the winter, celebrating a miracle which took place during a time of exile, a period of darkness. The miracle of the lights showed us that even in the darkest times the Almighty is still with us and has not forsaken us. The light of Torah, represented by the menorah, continues to shine despite the surrounding darkness. The miracle of Chanukah is the miracle of hope which holds our hands through the toughest times and gives us the strength to continue marching forward. Chanukah teaches us to be joyous even when we have good reason to despair.

With this background we see that Chanukah is not meant to be a time which we feel complete freedom and release from oppression. The miracle of a few scholars winning a battle against the mighty Greek army was, in fact, only the winning of a battle, not the war. The Macabees did win back the control of the Temple in Jerusalem but the war continued to rage on in other locales and the Jews remained under Greek oppression. Despite this it became a time of great joy with the appreciation for that which we did accomplish; we and our Judaism were alive!

The message of Chanukah is the message of hope. It teaches us that, despite the oppression, hatred and subjugation to our enemies, we never lose hope; the hope in our hearts is the redemption. It is this hope that got many through the horrors of ghettos and concentration camps, the hope of Chanukah. The light of the Chanukah candles burns on despite the darkness.

By the way, this is one of the reasons we (ideally) light oil menorahs on Chanukah. The obvious reason is to commemorate the miracle which transpired with oil. The deeper message is that the oil is hidden within the olive; only when you squeeze the fruit do you extract the hidden liquid which when lit sheds light.

 Chanukah is a time when we peer deeply within the miracle of Jewish existence; we continue to survive despite all the odds, the myriad attempts to destroy us. The message of Chanukah is to never give up. It teaches us to despair both on a national level and through the difficulties of our own personal lives as well.

This is one of the most important lessons of Jewish history; the way Jews have reacted to adversity throughout the millennia. We view tough times as opportunities for growth. If God has “frozen the credit card” through an economic downturn, we let Him know we got the message – by increasing our service to Him. If events have transpired which minimize our Jewish pride, like a scandal, we react by performing acts which will increase Jewish pride in the world. If the world turns a deaf ear to the anti-Semites who want to wipe us out, we let God know that we hear them and will do what we can to strengthen the Jewish people wherever they may be. 

The lesson of the Litman-Bigel families, of that amazing bride and groom, is the message of Chanukah. They taught us not to allow our enemies diminish our faith or our joy. The light of the Torah, reminiscent in the light of the menorah, continues to shine. A little light offsets even the deepest darkness. The players of darkness cannot defeat the nation of light. Am Yisrael Chai!


Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried

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