Dennis Sasso: Religious holidays help us see light—even in the darkness

Keywords Opinion / Viewpoint

This is the season for festivals of light: Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa.

At the darkest time of the year, we yearn for illumination, physical and spiritual. We quest for lucidity of mind and of purpose. We hope for emotional clarity, individually and collectively. During the long nights of the winter solstice, we seek the assurance that morning comes.

Hanukkah is a Festival of Lights, both seasonally and historically. The original story is found in the Book of Maccabees (second century BCE). It tells of the military victory over the Greco-Syrians by Judah and the Maccabean heroes who rejected oppression and refused to assimilate into the dominant Hellenistic culture. They reconquered Jerusalem and rededicated the temple.

Later Jewish tradition tempers the military nature of the events, and the miracle story of the single cruse of oil that lasted for eight days emerges centuries later. The original reason for the eight-day celebration is that Hanukkah is a belated Sukkot, the eight-day holiday during which King Solomon had dedicated the first temple.

On the Sabbath of Hanukkah, we read from prophet Zechariah the proclamation: “Not by strength and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Eternal God of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). Hanukkah becomes a victory of the power of the spirit, not an observance of military prowess.

The miracle of Hanukkah is not that the oil lasted for eight days, but that it is still burning. The miracle is the capacity to generate new light without extinguishing the past and to see that light, even in the darkness. Two centuries later, Christianity, too, would emerge from the countercultural notion that light can dispel darkness, that hope can overcome despair, that the power of peace is stronger than the urge to power.

Religious observances, as well as many civic and patriotic occasions, contain a “nucleus of truth surrounded by a protoplasm of imagination” (Robert Gordis)—that is, a historic event that we ornament with our own memories, hopes and values. We need to assure that the event around which we build our faith is credible and that the faith we weave around it is worthy. We carry the past with us even as we move forward and renew our tradition. We do not live in the past; we live with it.

Judaism and early Christianity were influenced by the intellectual, cultural and spiritual values of Hellenism. Religious terminology, practices and ideas, from words like bible, synagogue and ecclesia, to philosophical and theological modes of thinking, are part of the inheritance of Judaism’s and early Christianity’s encounter with Hellenism. While much of that culture was harsh and unkind, its best ideas helped to shape world culture and values.

The evolution of religious tradition, as well as of national culture, is in our ability to achieve a creative synthesis and reconstruction of the best of the past with the needs of the hour. The urgency to cancel the difficult and troubling aspects of the history and experiences that have shaped us does not serve religious traditions or society well. Civilization, in its diversity, is the ability to allow the past not to define us, but to teach, sensitize, challenge and inspire us to shine a new light.

May our Festival of Lights augur a bright future of renewal and hope.•

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Sasso is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck.

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