At the Holocaust Survivor’s Centre yesterday a lady drew me aside and explained:
We have a picture from 1933. Down one side of the street are houses covered in swastikas, draped with Nazi flags. On the other side is a window with a Chanukkiah. You see, they lit their candles, in spite of everything.
That, I believe, is the meaning of Chanukkah, – not just the defiance, but the hope, the courage and the tenacity of spirit.
I thought the same when I read Sarah Cooper’s words yesterday, before the service at St Pauls marking six months since the appalling Grenfell Tower fire. She is head teacher of Oxford Gardens primary school, which lost a pupil and a former pupil, and where over a hundred and twenty children have been severely affected:
We decided to have a day in where we aren’t saying: ‘It’s six months since the fire’. We are saying: ‘It’s six months in which together we’ve built strength’.
Anyone who lives locally, has been part of the emergency services teams involved, or even who drives or walks in the district, knows that the charred, burnt out tower stands as a terrifying, searing and accusing landmark over the entire area.
Thus, too, the ruins of the interior of the Temple in Jerusalem and the casualties and debris of numerous battles, must have haunted the thoughts of the Maccabees whose rekindling of the menorah over two thousand years ago the festival of Chanukkah commemorates.
But such brutal realities are scarcely mentioned in the Talmud’s brief narrative on which the eight days of Chanukkah is traditionally understood to be based. The account is so short it could almost be a tweet:
When the Hasmonean powers grew strong and defeated the Seleucid armies, they searched and found only one vial of oil with the seal of the High Priest intact. It contained sufficient to burn for only one day, but a miracle occurred and they lit from it for eight.
There is no mention, except by inference, of violence and war. But I don’t think this represents avoidance, the attempt to deny history or create alternative facts.
Instead, the story expresses something deeper, – the discovery of light in spite of everything. That, to my mind, is the real miracle. The search for the oil in the ruined precincts of the Temple is a symbolic expression of the quest to find the inner strength and the tenacity of spirit to sustain us despite everything, all the cruelties, injustice and hardship which life can bring. It is a quest we all must make, though some in incomparably more difficult circumstances.
The one vial of pure, unsullied oil is the unquenchable, inexhaustible flame of hope. It is the fuel on which creativity, inner strength and inspiration draw. If we have the courage to light it, the flame almost invariably lasts far longer than reason would have us calculate.
One person’s spirit kindles others, and they in turn impart strength to the person from whom they drew their first inspiration. Such light, sometimes in remote individual flames, sometimes in glowing solidarity, has illumined humanity in defiance of war and disaster, hatred and persecution, throughout the ages. It will not be extinguished.
Jewish law directs us to place our Chanukkah candles in the most visible place, ideally outside the front door to the left as we enter our home, or in a window overlooking the street. For we need strength of spirit in every domain; in our inner life to restore and maintain our own individual sense of purpose; in art, poetry and music; and in the public square to face with hope and courage the collective challenges with which history presents us.