Chanukah a much-needed celebration of light in darkness of pandemic, says Winnipeg rabbi

I’ve lived in Winnipeg most of my life and I tell people, it’s not the cold or the snow that gets me down in the winter time. It’s the darkness. It’s the sun setting early — by 4:30 these days! — that gets me down.

This year, the increasing darkness every day feels like it carries a deeper — heavier — meaning, especially in Manitoba, as pandemic cases continue to surge. Darkness is panic. It’s chaos. It’s uncertainty. It quite literally robs us of our ability to see and, with it, to think clearly.

Chanukah couldn’t come at a better time.

For us in the Jewish community, Chanukah has always been our antidote to fighting the increasing darkness.

It’s not a coincidence our festival of lights takes place when the days are the shortest and darkness is at its strongest. For eight straight nights, we recite blessings, sing songs, and light candles. That’s our ritual.

The Chanukah menorah ‘is a beacon of light and warmth that has the power to illuminate and cut through even the darkest night of the year,’ says Leibl. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Every night we add an extra candle so by the last night, the special nine-branched Chanukah menorah we use — which we call a chanukiyah — is completely full; a beacon of light and warmth that has the power to illuminate and cut through even the darkest night of the year.

Spirit will still burn bright this year

For Jewish people around the world, Chanukah has always been a holiday celebrated at home, more than in the synagogue. It’s especially popular with kids, which naturally turns it into an easy and deeply memorable family celebration.

I vividly remember the traditions of my family and childhood home. (My sister and I always placed bets on which candle would hang on the longest before burning out!)

None of that has to change this year.

WATCH | ‘We never lose hope,’ says Rabbi Matthew Leibl:

This year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, ‘the candles in the windows remind us more than ever of the power of hope,’ says Rabbi Matthew Leibl. 4:01

Even in a world of isolation and separation, these rituals can take place just as they always have. I take great comfort in that.

And while it’s true Chanukah parties are a very real thing for so many Jewish people — inviting extended family and friends over for an evening of candle lighting, dreidel spinning and latke eating — that’s only one or two of the nights. Most of the nights of Chanukah belong to the folks in your household. And only in your household.  

So, yes, there won’t be any parties this year, but within each home, the spirit and candles of Chanukah will burn as brightly this year as they have in years past.

No matter what, we never lose hope.– Rabbi Matthew Leibl

After all, Chanukah is a celebration of miracles against all odds. A tiny vat of oil incredibly lasted eight full days. (Imagine a cellphone at one per cent battery lasting a week!)

That makes Chanukah a festival of hope. Even if the hope is only a glimmer, only a single candle burning brightly in a world of increasing darkness. No matter what, we never lose hope.

The commandment for Chanukah isn’t just to light the candles, but to display them in the window, for everyone passing by to see. So everyone can remember the miracle and be inspired by our festival of hope, just as candles have the power to kindle other lights.

This year, the candles in the windows remind us more than ever of the power of hope. Eventually, the hours of daylight will get longer again. And in the meantime, we always have candles to give light and warmth, no matter how dark it gets.  

CBC’s Message of Hope is a series for Manitobans to share insights into keeping the faith and finding the hope during the challenges of the pandemic.

This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.

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