It sometimes feels as if our Jewish holidays—with one exception—are either too early in the calendar or too late. Maybe that’s just the nature of holidays for which some kind of preparation is required; there’s never enough time to get ready. Maybe it’s because the Jewish holidays are pegged to a different calendar and are, thus, untethered from our everyday sense of time. But last night was the first night of Chanukah, and this year, like every year, the festival of lights arrived at precisely at the right time.
Chanukah arrives during the shortest, darkest days of the year. And as each successive day shortens, we fill that lengthening void with successively more numerous candles on our menorahs. Each night, we add one more candle; each night, our spaces are a little bit brighter; and each night, our reflection and rededication grows a little bit deeper.
This year—this crazy, topsy-turvy, extraordinary year—brings us the potential for a deeper, more meaningful reflective process. The flames of those candles, one more each night, burn with the same oranges and reds as all other ritual flames; they are of the same essence as the flames of our Shabbat candles. And on Chanukah, it feels as if all of those flames converge. So tonight, when you light the candles in your menorah and the Shabbat candles, I encourage you to take a moment to think about the other ritual candle we light, the memorial candle, and to remember. Regardless of the cause of recent deaths, this year, it feels as if our losses are increasing, day by day, flame by flame. This year, it feels as if there is a lot of loss.
In the past few weeks, I lost two friends. Not best friends or even talk-every-day friends. But they were the kind of friends that fit an important, albeit small, space in my heart. Our Torah reading this week speaks of a similarly minor yet transformative character. Joseph, who is imprisoned, finds favor with the prison warden. Having gained the warden’s trust, Joseph begins to oversee prison responsibilities for the warden, a role that may have saved Joseph’s life.
Theirs is a friendship—momentary, circumstantial, and yet life-changing—that haunts me. When we emerge from this parallel universe, when the pandemic abates, who will be missing? What will have been lost? I fear that the answers to these questions are, respectively, many and much.
This Chanukah, may the lights of our menorahs fill the darkness with the hope of brighter days and with the strength of friendship past and present.