Sharing the light to illuminate the darkness
The holiday reminds Jews across the nation to unite and lean on one another for support in times of tribulation
The Torah begins with the start of existence, when God commands, “Let there be light.”
“That’s how light comes in to push away the darkness,” Rabbi Jill Levy said. “And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that God does that through words.”
The leader at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center is focusing on the power of words during the Hanukkah holiday, which she explained is all about light and illuminating the darkness.
In the darkest time of year, Levy said, the Jewish tradition calls for lighting candles in celebration of a miracle — a flame that did not extinguish against all odds.
Jewish Houstonians will celebrate Hanukkah in different ways across the city from Sunday through Dec. 10.
There are various interpretations of the holiday story and symbolism of the menorah lights, Rabbi Adrienne Scott of Congregation Beth Israel said.
“Basically, we look at the light as a story of survival,” she said. “It’s a story of the ability for Jewish people to live freely, to celebrate having access — on a global level — to practice our faith.”
Hanukkah means “dedication” in Hebrew, and the tale behind the eight holy nights centers on the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
The sacred space was desecrated by the soldiers
of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who ordered Jews to give up their religion and worship Greek gods instead.
Jewish warrior Judah Maccabee organized a revolt — and regained control of the temple. In order to clean and rebuild the sanctuary, he lit a candelabrum to illuminate the work but only had enough oil to burn for one day.
“That’s when the miracle comes in,” Scott said.
According to the Talmud, the flames continued for eight nights instead of one.
“This story and lesson are about rising above those who wish to persecute us,” Scott said.
Jews are asked to light a “hanukkiyah,” a special eight-candle menorah for Hanukkah, and place it in a window to send out a message to the outside world, she said.
“You’re advertising the miracle,” Scott said. “We’re saying, ‘We’re still alive and well.’ ”
Rabbi Brian Strauss of Congregation Beth Yeshurun is drawn to the symbolism of putting menorahs in a visible place. “You’re supposed to not only publicize the miracle, but also you’re telling the world, don’t lose hope,” he said.
Hanukkah is a holiday that reminds Jews to celebrate religious freedom, Strauss added.
“We have to continue to fight so that all people have that right,” he said. “As Jews, we’ve known so many dark and difficult times, but we never lose our faith and our hope that good will overcome evil, that people will find the religious freedom they deserve.”
Since the shooting in late October that left 11 people dead at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Strauss has seen an uptick in attendance.
“People are showing that they aren’t afraid,” he said. “We can’t be afraid of the dark forces of racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism.” Rabbi Gideon Estes of Congregation Or Ami is also drawn to the message of the public display of the menorahs.
“We show this light. We don’t hide it but display it,” he said. “In a time of attacks, your initial reaction is to cower, but our job is to say, ‘No, we’re here. We’re a beautiful mosaic of humanity. We’re going to shine in our differences.’ ”
Scott said that in the wake of the shooting, the holiday reminds Jews across the nation of the need to unite and lean on each other for support — and also to remain proud of their heritage and traditions.
“It isn’t the first time we’ve stumbled,” she said. “We’re taught that when we have to stumble, we have to stand again. The menorah is a powerful reminder of that.”
Scott added Jewish people are called to light the menorah and celebrate Hanukkah together — even in difficult times.
“Our calendar continues,” she said. “Don’t let the light go out. We have to stand in solidarity, and we have to observe this sacred time. We owe it to all those who came before us.”
Estes said that Hanukkah is also a “rededication” to the faith. “We’re able to rededicate ourselves to the fact that we’re proud to live our lives as Jews,” he said. “The light in the dark is a beacon against hate, against evil.”
Congregation Ori Ami hosts “Menorah Madness” on the eighth night of Hanukkah each year. Estes said tables are full of completely lit hanukkiyahs from Houston’s Jewish community.
“They’re all fully ablaze, and it’s beautiful to see, to allow that light to shine in,” he said. “It’s a light of love and family, shining out to the world.”
This year, the candles will remind Estes of those illuminated for the post Pittsburgh vigil. “It’s a light of hope and solidarity against ignorance and murder,” he said. “I’ll be thinking of all those candles and how we’re adding more light to the world.”
Levy explained that Jews celebrate Hanukkah by lighting one candle the first night — and the number increases each evening — in celebration of the eight nights the oil burned.
“You don’t want to decrease the light you bring into the world,” she said. “You only want it to be brighter and stronger. We’re always increasing the light. You can only increase holiness.”
This Hanukkah, Levy is asking members of the Jewish Community Center to consider their speech — and whether it adds to the good in the world or has a more shadowy effect.
“Words are very powerful,” she said. “They can bring light into someone’s life or darkness. Let’s think more deeply about how we talk to each other.”
Levy will be posting this message in a blog on the Jewish Community Center’s website — and the teaching will also be part of lessons taught there during the holidays.
Every night during Hanukkah, the center will host a candle lighting ceremony. The center will host Jewish Culturefest — 1-6 p.m. Friday at Levy Park, 3801 Eastside — with music, art, food and lighting of the Hanukkah candles.
Rabbi Strauss asks his congregation to continue to perform more deeds of loving kindness this Hanukkah.
Each night of Hanukkah, Estes sends an inspirational email to his congregants. “Let’s share our inner light,” he said. “We have gifts to share with the world. Let that light shine. Fill the world with greater goodness.”
Immanuel Davis, 2, plays with dreidels at the Jewish Community Center. The celebration of Hanukkah begins Sunday evening and runs through Dec. 10.
Jackson Rockoff, 4, of Houston decorates a paper dreidel at the Jewish Community Center.
Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish holiday, is celebrated with a nightly menorah lighting, special prayers and foods.