The actual story of Hanukkah has its roots in the years 200 – 166 B.C. The Greeks and Syrians had effectively taken control of Judea (the Land of Israel) and King Antiochus III of Syria originally permitted Jews to continue practicing their own religion.
Alas, his son Antiochus IV Epiphanes took the opposite approach. In 168 B.C., the Second Temple of Jerusalem was taken over and statues of Greek gods – including Zeus – were erected.
Judah Maccabee led a rebellion and in 166 B.C., ran the Syrians out of town, cleansed the Second Temple, and rededicated the temple using a menorah. The seven branches in this candlelabrum represented knowledge and creation, and were supposed to be lit each and every night — and left burning throughout the night.
But there was a problem, because there was only one day’s worth of oil to burn and it would take a full eight days before more oil could reach the Temple. The Jews lit the menorah anyway, yet it burned for eight consecutive days. This is regarded as a miracle.
How can modern-day Jews or, for that matter, individuals of any faith (or even atheists) find relevance in this story? As with many biblical stories, there are so many rich interpretations and symbols to anchor ourselves to and enhance our daily lives.
Have you ever been entranced while watching a candle or a fire in your fireplace? Just stared at them for a few moments? What you are looking at is, in one way, a miracle of its own. “And God said, ‘Let there by light.’”
The flickering flames are a direct link to the birth of the universe. Whether conducted by a divine force or just the right combination of physics and energy, the universe gave birth to light.
We use the words “enlightenment” and “illumination” and “inspiration,” all of which derive from words linked to light or divine guidance. So when you light the Hanukkah candles — or when atheists light regular candles from time to time — take a few moments. Turn out any other lights in the room and ponder what you see. Reflect upon yourself and in those moments, seek out inspiration and illumination.
What problem troubles you? Seek an answer in that moment. Is there something you’ve always wanted to try, but for whatever reason, never actually set in motion? Take these moments and think about how you would take the first step towards that goal.
Ask yourself in that moment: Who do you love, and have you told them what they mean to you? Think about what they have brought to your life, and what words you would share with them.
One of the greatest gifts we can give someone is telling them how they have impacted our lives.
Artists and other creatives might use these moments to turn their imagination loose. Reach into that divine space inside and seek a challenge that will push you beyond what you’ve done to date.
Sometimes, though, just letting your mind free-associate will lead you to unexpected places. What images come to your mind? What places? What times? Which people? Rest in those images and let yourself feel something. God granted us feelings, yet our culture teaches us to suppress them. Let them come to life.
Finally, remember that a menorah not only holds light, it spreads it to others. Take whatever wisdom you find and share it with others. Let your shining character on the inside be reflected in your actions in the outside world.
Just as the arms of the menorah stretch forth from the center, let your illumination carry to others, and let theirs carry to you.