Hanukkah, Miracles, Light, and Darkness (Or: “In Search of the Perfect Gift”)
December is practically defined by Hanukkah.
Though technically a “minor” holiday, Hanukkah in America is huge. Kids look forward to getting gifts. Parents plan out the eight nights. Friends and relatives schedule visits. Everyone anticipates the glow of the Hanukkah candles.
Yet December is also marked by darkness — physical darkness, to be sure, and also a kind of mental darkness.
The days are short. The nights are long. In the morning we leave the house in darkness and in darkness we return at night. For many people, that darkness spills over into the realm of the emotional, actually making them less happy. “Seasonal affective disorder,” it’s called, the condition’s acronym (SAD) reflecting the way darkness makes people feel.
As with most things, SAD is a spectrum. Some people creep toward deep depression in the darkness of winter. Others just feel a bit down from time to time. But rare are the people who don’t notice the darkness.
So we have Hanukkah on one hand and winter on the other. The holiday of light and the season of darkness.
Alas, the bridge between the two in America is usually gifts. Things. Presents. Look at the packaging of almost any child’s game, and you’ll see the number one selling point: a photo of a deliriously happy family, bathed in several thousand watts of light that showcase an immaculately clean house in which children of various ages gleefully interact with their two smiling parents.
And there you have it. The only thing standing between you and that family is the right gift. The perfect gift, marketers like to call it. Find it, and your life, too, will morph into the one you see in the photo. The ideal gift doesn’t just banish the darkness. It fixes your life.
So most people spend December in search of that miracle cure. Good gifts abound, but are they good enough? Experience dictates that the perfect gift of advertising fame is elusive. Last year’s gifts didn’t do the trick, after all. So this year’s presents have to be even better.
It doesn’t work, of course.
There is no gift that will transform a life, no matter how much we might wish otherwise.
So I’d like to suggest another bridge, another way of mixing the season of darkness with the holiday of light: actual miracles.
Now, most people don’t believe in them. But then again, we know for sure that there’s no such thing as darkness. Darkness is just the absence of light — which is where we get the old joke about the photographer who opened the darkroom door and let all the darkness leak out. If darkness, which we know doesn’t exist, can have such power over our lives, perhaps miracles can, too.
Hanukkah, in fact, insists on it. The whole point of lighting the Hanukkah lights is to “advertise the miracle” of Hanukkah. This is why tradition prefers that the candles be placed in a window, where passers-by will pass by, see them, and be reminded of miracles.
Perhaps one reason most people reject miracles is that — as with the gifts — they expect too much. A parted sea, perhaps, or an unconsumed burning bush. Or at least a bit of oil that lasts longer than it should.
But I think miracles are more subtle.
So this Hanukkah season, give up on the perfect gift. And instead be on the lookout for a miracle coming your way.
[Originally published in the Vassar Temple bulletin, December 2014.]