Okay, I admit it. It is one of my least favorite songs, and by far my least favorite Hanukkah song in a world sorely lacking good Hanukkah songs. Please don’t take my dislike personally if Peter, Paul and Mary’s lyrics happen to be among your favorites. That being said, there is something to this idea of “lighting one candle,” especially considering the Talmudic debate surrounding the procedure for lighting the lights of the holiday. While we often quote the opinions of Beit Hillel (one candle on the first night, ascending to eight on the last) and Beit Shammai (eight candles on the first night descending to one on the last), we rarely reference the fact that the average person was expected to light only one light for the household each night (Shabbat 21b).
I actually love this idea of lighting one candle. After all, when the Maccabees lit the Temple’s menorah, they had no way of knowing how many days the oil would last, if it would even last a day. But they rekindled it anyway. It didn’t matter to them how many days the oil would last! Hanukkah could have been three, five or seven days and it wouldn’t have mattered. Their goal wasn’t eight. All that mattered was that they displayed the courage to kindle the lamp for one more day. That act of defiance, resilience and hope—to push back against the darkness one more day with no guarantee that the light would be burning on the day after—is the true miracle of the holiday for me, epitomizing the Jewish spirit throughout time.
Today, the day after the Hanukkah lights have gone out for this year, is the winter solstice. The Northern Hemisphere is tilted farthest away from the sun, resulting in the shortest “day”—and longest night—of the year. From where will the light come to push against the darkness? Hopefully, we’ve been storing up on the oil necessary to kindle a lamp, if only for a day. As a big Star Wars fan, I will share with you (spoiler alert?) that one of the things I love most about this movie is the message it sends about the responsibility that each of us bears to serve as a shamash for one day, for one other person.
While ruminating on my disdain (a little too harsh?) for Peter, Paul and Mary’s song, I came across another set of lyrics by Ronnie Spector (lead singer of the Ronettes) for another song with the same title:
Make the sun rise tomorrow with your faith in today
You can soften a sorrow if you just light the way
All it takes is a candle to turn darkness to light
Like the promise of the dawn
On a long winter’s night.
Figures, she wrote it as a Christmas song.
Happy solstice, and may all your winter days be bright,
Rabbi Craig Scheff