Friday, December 15, 2006

Chanukah: In the beginning ...

Tonight begins Chanukah. Festival of Lights. Many eves of dreidels and gelt and latkes. Applesauce and sour cream. Potlucks? Family? I'm missing the last two there. Unfortunately, I'm missing most of those things in the eve. For I work most of the nights of Chanukah. The newspaper life wasn't meant for me. I could make it work, sure. But I'd have to make it work without Shabbat (as I do now, and yes, a play on words), and that's something I'm tired of sacrificing.

But for now, Chanukah, this holiday of yore and splendid celebration of our people. Did I mention the building's electric menorah sits RIGHT behind my desk? I was worried for a while because the Christmas tree went up, but no sign of the menorah. Then, after my days off I came in and BAM! It's worn, too. One of the bulbs is falling out of the socket, and I have my suspicious as to whether it will even turn on once plugged in.

I have complete and full intentions to blog as much as possible throughout the week on this holiday, mostly because I am not as close to it as I would like to be. Raised in a household of the golden rule and Santa Claus and the christmas tree, there wasn't much about Jesus or G-d or anything associated with the holiday. So I sort of have an advantage, I suppose. I have a menorah at home that I bought at a Walgreens back in Nebraska two years ago. It is silver and covered in leftover wax from my past two Chanukahs. I bought colorful candles this year at CVS and have full intentions of laying down the foil tonight, to prepare. Even though I won't be home to light the candle at the sun's down, I'll light the menorah when I get home, most assuredly.

My intention for tomorrow is to get up, head to the store for some food coloring or sprinkles and then make sugar cookies shaped like menorahs, the Maccabees, dreidels and magen Davids. I bought the cookie cutters a few years ago and last year made the cookies for my coworkers at the college press, so I figure I've got something going here. My Chanukah will be filled with dozens of festive sugar cookies. Hopefully, someday, I'll be the bubbe with the cookies. Lots of them.

So how do I want to begin the holiday? Firstly with a tidbit on what Chanukah is about (for those out there unaware, then a bit on the menorah (inspired by a friend's query) and then by some thoughts from Rabbi David Zeller, the founder of the Shevet Center for Jewish Spirituality and Medidation in Jerusalem.

1) In a nutshell, Chanukah celebrates a miracle for the Jewish people -- both religiously and militarily. Now, the military side of the miracle isn't really emphasized that much, but it's significant because it is what set the lights rolling. The Maccabees, who were religious, were enraged at the defiling of the Temple and restrictions on the Jews, rebeled and reclaimed the Temple. Much of the battle was considered the work of miracles because the Maccabees were far outnumbered, of course. They cleaned and rededicated the temple in 164 BCE and set the ner Tamid (Eternal Flame) aflame with the only bit of purified oil that was left, but realized they only had enough to keep it lit for a single day before more purified oil could be gotten. But the lamp stayed lit for eight days -- a true miracle on top of everything else, wouldn't you say?

Perhaps the greatest thing about Chanukah is that it is a time to bring light to the world when it is at its darkest (think about how dark it gets so early now!) in wintertime. It's about renewal, just as the Temple was renewed. It's about putting forth light from amid the darkness, finding all the greatness amid the darkness.

2) A friend e-mailed me today asking what the difference is between a menorah with 7 branches and a menorah with 9 branches. So for those of you who have seen both and know not the difference, here you are: The menorah commanded by G-d to be lit each day in the days of the Temple had six branches and one stem for the seven days of the week. These are often seen in synagogues today, and my shul back home in Nebraska had two electric ones that flanked the bimah, and each Shabbat they were turned on. The seven-posted menorah has many rules and regulations regarding what it can and cannot be made of, etc. The menorah that is most commonly seen and is associated with Chanukah borrows from the original menorah, of course, and has eight branches and one stem, which is for the shamash. The shamash is the candle lit that serves as the "worker," in that it is used to light the other candles, which represent the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days. Ta da!

And finally ...

2) Rabbi Zeller has said that Chanukah is "one of the most mystical of holidays, because it comes out of the oral tradition," rather than from Torah. Additionally, he says, "The deepest secrets are contained in this holiday. It carries a tremendous power."