Sarah, the pint-sized eight year-old girl I take care of, had a couple of choice quotes yesterday:
The first was,
"I give my parents a gift every day. The gift of me."
It's the second thing she said however, that struck an interesting chord with me:
"Isn't Hannukah just about giving gifts and receiving gifts and being thankful that you are getting gifts?"
Well, in my experience, not really.
Growing up we never really exchanged gifts on Channukah, save for little things here and there, probably thrown in so that we children wouldn't feel left out when our friends came to school bragging of their Christmas present hauls. To this day my most frequent Channukah present from my mother is simply a calendar; one year she got me one with different types of chilli peppers on it which was quite exciting since I really like spicy food.
But I digress.
Within the space that could be filled with the exchanging of presents, we were free instead to focus on the traditions, rituals and themes that accompany this holiday. I've always loved Channukah; the songs and blessings are pretty, it's fun to light the candles, the stories we commemorate are great and there are few things better than those wonderful, warm latkes my mom makes. However, it was only after I moved away from home that I began to really identify with one of the central messages of Channukah- spreading light into the darkness.
I've taken a lot of pride over the years in lighting my small menorah, watching the glow spread from the waxy watchmen on my windowsill. It's always felt easy to be connected to my family when I light the candles, since the whole ritual is meant to symbolize spreading light into the world. This message has always seemed very universal to me and appears all the more poignant with such a dearth of light in this world right now. The powers of evil stemming from middle eastern deserts are casting a thick blanket of fear and hatred, while at at home domestic terrorism has more than reared its ugly head. So the idea of filling the world with a little light-that a tiny flame can penetrate even the deepest darkness? I can certainly get on board with that.
Further more, I've always found the process of sitting by the candles once I've lit them to be an extremely meditative, calming experience. This particular Channukah however, it occurred to me that I had been missing an even deeper message lying within this concept of light displacing dark. For as I sat on my bed looking at the candles, I realized that yes, anyone in the apartment buildings across the way from me could see my menorah, and that I was succeeding in illuminating some darkness. But even more so, I noticed that the glow that was filling my own room. I began to think that maybe rather than just sending light outwards on Channukah, we should be reminded to send it back inside as well. That when are depressed or sad or anxious or angry or whatever black tar might be seeping into our subconscious that day, we can allow a little flame of positivity to illuminate our mind- to know that even when we are at our worst, there is always that tiny little light inside of us, that small voice telling us to keep going, that we'll be alright.
Often it's so hard to trust that such a little light could possibly make a difference when faced with overwhelming negativity or darkness. And so we ignore or extinguish those hopeful thoughts and don't even bother trying to do the little things that cheer us up, thinking to ourselves that "something so small couldn't possibly make a difference." But it can.
In one part of the Channukah story, despite being greatly outmatched, a tiny group of Jewish soldiers manages to overcome the far larger and better outfitted Greek army; here are our little candles, sending light into the chasm out our windows. And here then is our own hope, our own small, positive voice, shining its little flame into the darkness of our bad days. All we need to do is sit with our candles, trust their ability to displace even just a little bit of night and whatever armies may march against us, won't stand a chance.
So this Channukah if you are feeling sad or anxious or angry, and you have begun to doubt that those small remedies even work, place a little faith that even the simplest of actions- like kindling the lights of a set of wax candles- can help dispel your clouds. So do that 5 min of meditation you worried wouldn't make a difference, take that walk around the block, go see the new star wars movie- do something small that makes you happy. You'd be surprised how far that little bit of light can take you.
Happy Channukah everyone!