By Cantor Russ Jayne
(AJNews) – We Jews know that stories are not simple things. As a people, we tell tales that place us in the drama of world history and connect us with a common past and a shared future. Our national stories challenge us as individuals and as a community. They provide us with contexts to work out moral dilemmas and help us reflect collectively on what it means to live life well.
We also tell stories about our personal histories. Each of us has a story that narrates the important events and experiences that we believe explain who we are in the world. Sometimes the stories we tell about ourselves expand our opportunities and at times these same stories create self-imposed obstacles.
However, stories are never just stories. We know that narratives, both personal and national, are not only about the past. We Jews know that the stories we tell help create our future as well. Our stories explain not only who we are but also how we want to be in the world.
It is in this context that I would like to reflect upon a story about Hanukkah, but not the one you are probably thinking about. We all know the story of the Maccabees and the story of the miraculous jug of oil. These are two of the most popular stories of Hanukkah, but what I would like to present is a little known third story. The ancient rabbis never explicitly link the following story with the holiday of Hanukkah, but the connections are intriguing. It is a story told about Adam (the first human being) in the Talmudic Tractate Avodah Zarah:
Our rabbis taught: when the first man saw the daylight hours were becoming shorter and shorter, he said, “Woe is me! Perhaps because I have sinned, the world is becoming dark around me and is returning to chaos. This is the death sentence declared upon me by Heaven!” He sat for eight days in fasting and prayer. After the winter solstice when he saw the days becoming longer and longer, he said, “This is simply the way of the world!” He went and made an eight-day festival. He established it for the sake of Heaven. (BT Avodah Zarah 8a)
This Talmudic story invites us to imagine what it must have been like to experience the first winter. The nights grew longer, the days grew shorter. It was difficult to stay warm. Adam feared that God was returning the world to the chaos of pre-Creation. Believing he was the cause of the darkness, Adam prayed and fasted, but when he began to see that the days were growing longer and the nights were growing shorter, Adam realized that this was simply how the world worked. There are seasons, and some periods of the year have more light and others have more darkness. It is because of this realization that Adam made an eight-day festival. Adam established these eight days celebrating the return of the sun as an offering of gratitude to G-d.
Here is a rabbinic text explaining the origins of some unknown eight-day festival, smack in the darkest part of winter, celebrating the return of light to the world . . . hmmm . . . curious. I don’t think I am going out on a limb to propose the idea that one of the origins of the holiday of Hanukkah has nothing to do with the Maccabees, nor the miracle of the oil. These are highly particularistic stories. Rather, Hanukkah has, in its distant past, the most universal of messages. It is a holiday about experiencing fear, vulnerability, and darkness and not being consumed. It is a holiday that reminds us that light and security will return again, as sure as we know darkness will return. These are the cycles of life. The challenge is remembering that the darkness will, in fact, retreat. So, this too, like the stories of the Maccabees and of the oil, is a story of profound faith. It is this great, profound faith in the world that I hope will be rekindled in each and every one of us as the light of the menorah fills both our hearts and our souls this Hanukkah.
Cantor Russ Jayne is the Kolbo and spiritual leader of Beth Tzedec Congregation, an egalitarian conservative synagogue in Calgary.