By Rabbi Norm Roman

I am writing this as the Jewish community celebrates Chanukah, as the Christian community prepares for Christmas, as the African-American community anticipates their observance of Kwanzaa . . . as so many people around us excitedly and faithfully look forward to bringing LIGHT into what has been an unfortunately dark year. It seems to me that the various rituals with which we each mark our wintertime festivals will all be especially meaningful as we close out the year 2020.

Rituals are important; they give us hope, confidence, comfort, and the appropriately-enough impulse of dedication (that’s the translation of the Hebrew term Chanukah). Whether they are customs familiar to millions around the world rooted in centuries of tradition, or whether they were created by a specific family (yours?) for a very specific time, place or reason, rituals are endless. We love them, and we need them!

Although there are a few rituals performed in present-day Temples or Synagogues, Chanukah is primarily a home-based holiday. Our wise sages taught that the essence of this eight-day celebration near the Winter Solstice is “a candle for each person and his/her household.” Today we understand that minimally each Jewish home should light a Chanukah Menorah (candelabrum). Not each Temple, not each town, but each home, each family unit. This is because there are simple, life-affirming lessons in lighting candles at the coldest and darkest time of the year.

You might have heard the traditional story that the candles of Chanukah represent the miracle of one little jug of holy oil lasting miraculously for 8 days, when the Maccabees (forerunners of the Hasmonaeans) rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE. But there are many other stories related to those little lights which inspire us – even from more recent times of darkness – and respond to our deepest human need for hope in the future. For example, the late British Rabbi Hugo Gryn, relates his true experience:

“It was the cold winter of 1944 . . . my father took me and some of our friends to a corner in our concentration camp barrack. He announced that it was the eve of Chanukah, produced a curious-shaped clay bowl and began to light a wick immersed in his precious, but now melted, daily margarine ration. Before he could recite the blessing, I protested at the waste of food. He looked at me, then at the lamp, and finally said, “You and I have seen that it is possible to live up to three days without food, we once lived almost three days without water . . . but you cannot live properly for three minutes without hope.”

In our times of darkness, whether the darkness of a people’s history or the darkness of a pandemic affecting millions, or the darkness in the cycle of the natural world, we need our rituals to light our path forward. It has been said that ritual is our spiritual sustenance, filling our lives with meaning and hope, as food fills our bodies with nourishment. Our rituals help us increase the holiness in our lives and in the world, bringing light, warmth, faith and hope. Our wintertime rituals (like, for the Jews, lighting the candles of the Menorah) remind us that there is more purpose to our lives than simple, physical survival.

I wish you all a happy, healthy, meaningful Season of Light!

Norman T. Roman, MAHL, DD, is the part-time Rabbi of Beth Shalom Temple Center. He is also the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield, Michigan, and previously served in Santa Monica, California and the Cleveland, Ohio communities. For 20 years, he taught as Adjunct Faculty of the (Jesuit) University of Detroit Mercy.

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