As we enter the third night of the eight days of the Festival of Light, Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light wishes a very happy Hanukkah to all who are celebrating.
As a scholar of religious and cultural history by training, the festival of Hanukkah is of particular interest to me. The commemoration of the recovery of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Second Temple and the Maccabean Revolt more than two thousand years ago bears many levels of varying meaning across the Jewish diaspora. I would tonight like to lift up but one which struck me on the first night of Hanukkah.
The tradition, the miracle, of the amount of one night’s pure olive oil being used to light the menorah for eight nights in the Second Temple speaks profoundly to several important elements of faith and our connection to the environment and our Creator. For many people of the Mediterranean the olive tree, and the resources it provides in both oil and olives, is universally held as an important symbol of life, longevity, and memory. Olive trees can last for 500 years and take time and care to cultivate, yet they survive, grow, and thrive in fairly dry climates with minimal soil. They are handed down from generation to generation and they, like many landmarks and forms of nature, provide a connection, deep roots for families and individuals with the land and their heritage.
The burning of the oil as a symbolic ritual, necessitating pure olive oil, and providing continuous light during the period of rededication and restoration of the Second Temple, speaks to the constancy of faith and its connection both to culture and the bounty of the earth. New oil took time to collect, press, and process. Cultivating and reaping the bounty of our planet takes time and care, but if done properly it can sustain all of us physically and spiritually.
Most importantly, the culmination of these symbols is the miraculous act of the Creator. The burning of the light represents the presence of the Creator in the Temple, in this moment, and in the lives of the Jewish people. The miracle showed through the ongoing flame that each night the Creator held them as they held their faith.
I hope to uplift the idea that our faith traditions can uplift us in the important work ahead of creating connections, working with constancy, and drawing strength from our deep roots to practice Tikkun olam (healing acts) in the garden of Creation.