My first Chanukah in uniform was a dark one. Only the day before our scheduled Chanukah party at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, we’d gotten the devastating news that our unborn baby had 3 of the 12 congenital heart defects considered critical. Expectation for survival? Negative.
Yet the fact that this painful news was thrown at us on Chanukah was itself bolstering; and the fact that I’d share the light of the holiday with my brothers and sisters in uniform was quietly invigorating. After all, doesn’t this particularly holiday remind us that the fight against all odds is not over before it starts? And the warriors around me, with their variety of experiences, each with their own tale of survival, were all testament to that.
The Maccabees did not just fight for their religious freedom, and leave it at that. They sought out that elusive jug of oil because they knew that even after the battles have been fought, more needs to be done. Victory would ring hollow if not followed up by bringing light anew into the world.
Light, and fire in particular, is so heavily symbolic in Judaism: The flicker of the flame that strives ever upward. The idea that light will continue infinitely, so long as it does not get blocked – but that the blockage itself reveals that the light is there. The concept that just a small amount of light dispels a whole lot of darkness. The Macabees understood all this, and that’s why it was critical to find a source of light; a pure source of goodness and light, immediately after the war and the bloodshed. Pure oil, extracted from intense crush of the olive press, symbolizing the idea that the most crushing of experiences are themselves transformative; capable of lifting us to become sources of light.
The fact that they found the oil was itself a miracle. Perhaps the greater miracle was that they even searched at all. But search they did; and they indeed found. And the results were greater than what could have been expected: the legendary seven extra days of light.
Knowledge of this first fortified my mind, and over the next nine weeks until the baby was born, I struggled to wrestle it into my heart. In my personal fight, the search for oil was both the elusive goal, as well as the weapon of choice. In our case, we turned deep to our Jewish experiences, and struck oil within them: we fixed our mezuzot. We held a communal gathering of Torah study. And we celebrated the life we had with the children we had as best we could; working hard to ensure Shabbat remained sacred, pleasant and uplifting. And every time the doctors asked us for an end-of-life plan for the unborn child, we rebuffed them.
Eventually the baby was born. His heart functioned not for 4 hours, but for five days, while we fought to get him medical care; eventually resulting in open-heart surgery on his sixth day of life. And this year, our own Chanukah miracle, our little Nissi, will celebrate his second Chanukah as a true source of light to all who see his beaming smile.
And while that original battle might be over, the fight to find and spread more light never is.
Wishing all a Chanukah of ever-increasing light!
Rabbi Elie Estrin
Volume 72. Number 4. Winter 2018