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Festival Of Lights Banks On The Miracle Of Zoom This Year

A lit menorah sits on a table with festive lights, dreidels and jelly donuts

Tonight marks the beginning of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights. WAMC checked in with Western Massachusetts rabbis to learn what counsel they have for their communities during a particularly dark season.

The holiday – one of a number of holy days that remember trying times in Jewish history – seems almost tailor made for winter 2020.

“Hanukkah is a festival celebrating light and the kindling of light at the darkest time of the year," said Rabbi David Weiner. "It’s an expression of the triumph of hope. It’s an opportunity really to celebrate how we best respond to darkness.”

Weiner serves the congregation of Knesset Israel in Pittsfield. He says this year, he’s focusing on the miracle at the center of the tradition, which stretches back to a Jewish insurgency centered on Jerusalem against the Seleucid Empire circa 165 BCE.

“The Maccabees, after the desecration of the temple by the Assyrian Greeks, the Maccabees find one cruse of oil, a little canister of oil, that has enough oil in it for one night," Weiner explained. "They put the oil in the lamp, and it lasts for eight days.”

Weiner says Rabbi David Hartman’s analysis of the miracle has fueled his own thoughts on Hanukkah and the supernaturally enduring fire from the oil lamp.

“That makes sense for days two through eight, right, because that’s when the oil was lasting longer than you thought it would," he told WAMC. "But for the first night, that doesn’t really make sense, because what miracle is there in having oil – you put oil in a lamp and you put a wick in it and you light it, and it burns, right? This is not a miracle. And so what he observes is actually it is a miracle. The miracle is that having found only enough oil for one day, somebody put it in the lamp and lit it, not knowing what the next day would necessarily bring.”

Through that lens, the message of Hanukkah is about resiliency.

“To go ahead and move forward and find the light and make the light even when we don’t know what’s coming next," said Weiner. "I think it’s a message that has served the Jewish people well over the centuries, and I think it’s a message that’s important for right now. We don’t really know what’s coming. That doesn’t mean we can just stop. The surest way to make sure there’s no light in the world is to stop lighting the candle in the first place.”

The holiday is not immune to the radical transformation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – but another rabbi says Jews are used to holidays being transformed over the ages.

“Hanukkah is a holiday that we celebrate in community, but we also have so many ways that we can celebrate it at home," said Rabbi Liz Hirsch, who serves Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield. “It’s traditional to put your menorah, your Hanukkah lights, in your window. That’s called Pirsum HaNes, to sort of publicize or declare, make public the mitzvah, the miracle of the holiday, and to make that known to everyone. And that’s a way we can connect to each other.”

Both congregations are holding virtual celebrations in lieu of traditional gatherings.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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