Chanukah is one of the many festivals of light that cultures around the world celebrate as the days of the Northern hemisphere shorten and darkness increases. In this year’s Jewish calendar, Chanukah is earlier than some other years, ending a week before the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. As always, though, the end of the holiday, when the most candles are lit, will occur at the darkest moment of the eight days when the moon is new.
The Sefat Emet, a Chasidic commentator, teaches about this week’s Torah portion, Mikketz, that the dream of Pharoah where the healthy cows and ears of grain are eaten by sickly cows and grain means not only that Egypt needed to stock up on food in times of plenty, as Joseph interpreted, but that we must stock up spiritually as well. “ … prepare ourselves well in times of plenty, in those times when holiness is apparent to us. We should fix that radiance firmly in our hearts, so it may be there for the bad times when holiness is hidden … ”
This holiday offers a lovely balance of opportunity to connect with others socially and to take time to go inward and be introspective. The time of year calls for both modalities.
At this point in the eight-day holiday, some of us have had our fill of parties, gatherings and latkes. For those people, it may be time to use the moment of lighting the candles and watching them burn as a time of meditation and quiet. Simply stopping to look at the candles can be a powerful practice of mindfulness.
A challenge I often give myself during Chanukah is to stop from my normal evening activities for the duration of the candle burning — leaving the cooking, the dishes or whatever it is — to just enjoy the light of the candles and my family.
For a greater opportunity for introspection, one can light the menorah during the day with the same number of candles one lighted the night before. If you’ve said the blessing the night before, you need not do this again; simply light the candles and enjoy.
For those of us who find ourselves turning inward during these darker months, Chanukah celebrations may provide a necessary incentive to be drawn out of our shells. It can be hard to meet with friends this time of year — the cold, the early dark, the greater feeling of tiredness that results from these things. But turning inward can also lead to isolation if it goes unchecked.
The miracle of the light on Chanukah occurred in response to the rededication of the Temple, the supreme gathering place of the Jews. Chanukah reminds us that just as the Jews would gather together in Jerusalem to visit the Temple during a pilgrimage festival three times a year, we, too, must gather together.
I’ve been struck by recent evidence that shows connecting with friends and family may contribute to better aging and even longer life. This Torah portion also illustrates the importance of family as the lead up to Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers.
He encounters them again when they come down to Egypt in search of food, yet he waits to reveal himself to them. Although it is hard to understand Joseph’s motives for holding back and tricking his brothers, his genuine emotion at seeing Benjamin again (he leaves the room to cry) reminds us of how important strong connections between families can be.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected].