It is not a coincidence that Hanukkah falls at the time of year that the daylight is the most scarce; we kindle lights when the sun sets, even before 5 PM here in Pittsburgh. The message is not subtle: where there is darkness, the Jews are obligated to seek and provide illumination.
And that light represents the struggle, fought by the Maccabees in the second century BCE against the Hellenistic invaders, of monotheism over idolatry, of the beauty of Torah over the Greek worship of physical beauty, of self-actualization over the tyranny of foreign power. Dr. Theodor Gaster, a professor of comparative religion, penned his classic work The Jewish Year in 1952, and it is a book that continues to be controversial because of his portrayal of many Jewish holidays as being rooted in previously-existing pagan customs. Nonetheless, Gaster characterizes Hanukkah wonderfully:
Hanukkah affirms the universal truth that the only effective answer to oppression is the intensified positive assertion of the principles and values which that oppression threatens.
In other words, the way that we stamp out oppression is to emphasize the values that we hold dear: the freedom to live a Jewish life marked by engagement with Torah and Jewish values; the obligation to root out hatred and bigotry; the imperative to act on the responsibility that we have for needy people of all kinds, to protect and nourish the widow, the orphan, the stranger among us.
This may be the darkest Hanukkah that most of us have experienced, but if we continue to frame our lives in the holiness and beauty that our Torah, that our mitzvot / holy opportunities and our values give us, we will cast much more light. It’s not just about the candles: it is also the berakhot, the singing, the publicizing of the mitzvah, and our willingness to continue to reach out to counter oppression. Happy Hanukkah!
Rabbi Seth Adelson