The Chanukah menorah begins with a single light and ends with many. So too, the sun begins as a distant, dull light and ends in the blazing warmth of spring. –Rabbi Jill Hammer, telshemesh.org
It’s the first night of Hanukkah, and I open the box from the drugstore and smile. 44 perfect candles, decorated with drizzled silver wax. I love this time of year. True, Hanukkah’s not one of the major Jewish holidays, but it’s the only one we celebrated when I was a kid, so I have a soft spot.
I place the shamash–which shares its name, completely coincidentally I’m sure, with the Mesopotamian god of the sun–in the center, elevated above the rest. There are nine candles total. By the power of three times three, so mote it be, so mote it be.
I place the first candle in the far right holder and light it with the shamash. On Hanukkah we place the candles right to left but light them left to right. We like symmetry. We like to make sure the left side of the menorah doesn’t get jealous of the right side, just as we cover the loaf of challah on Shabbat to make sure it doesn’t get jealous of the wine. Jews can be pretty hardcore animists, when you get down to it.
When the candles are burning, I say my Pagan prayer: “Blessed is the Shekhinah, who brings the sun back every year. Blessed is the sun, who dies and is reborn.”
Oh–I guess Hanukkah has something to do with a war, too. Right. The Maccabees taking the Temple back from the Greeks. That whole thing.
Here’s what happened: at some point in Jewish history, the rabbis took what was very obviously a winter solstice ritual and changed the mythology behind it into a commemoration of a violent historical event. Now, we could let this distortion leave us bitter and resentful towards the Abrahamic religions (something I think we modern Pagans are maybe a little too good at)…or, like the Hanukkah gifts that come out of the darkness of winter, we could look for the spiritual gifts both mythologies offer us when we hold them side by side. The miracle of the lamp oil that lasted for eight whole nights after the Temple was retaken has been compared to the miracle of the sun hefting itself back into the sky after dipping sluggishly to the horizon. You don’t have to believe in anything mystical or otherworldly to appreciate the miracle of the solstice. The world grows dark…and then it grows light again. We bow under injustice…and then throw off our oppressors. What miracles! But, as the Wheel of the Year reminds us, even the most joyful light needs darkness to balance it. Too much sun and the plants all die. Too much power and the freedom fighter becomes the dictator.
By the power of three times three, so mote it be, so mote it be. The sun will return in five days. Does lighting the menorah literally make it come back? Yes. Kidding. No. But it does open us up to receiving that gift–and honestly, I think that’s the deepest form of magic there is.
Happy Hanukkah, everyone, and happy solstice!