Light, or enlightenment, is a metaphor for so many optimistic, positive and critical components of our humanity, and of our daily lives.
Light is a metaphor for education. For the truth. For faith. For discovery. For salvation. For freedom. For wisdom. For love. For hope. ‘May the blessings of Light be upon you, Light without and Light within’ is an old Irish blessing. ‘Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’ is a Chinese proverb. James Thurber wrote about ‘the two kinds of light, the glow that illuminates and the glare that obscures.’ Woodstock hippy Arlo Guthrie sang that ‘you can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in’. A Maori proverb advises that if you turn your face to the sun, the shadows fall behind you. Beatle George Harrison and German poet Goethe both wrote of ‘the inner light’. Not to be outdone, Leonard Cohen growled that ‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’
Religious festivals around the world come in all shapes and sizes. Some require the slitting of live animals’ throats and the smearing of their blood over the writhing torsos of the devoted, others require being whipped and lashed as you haul a giant crucifix up a hill in bizarre re-enactments of historical events. Some religious festivals demand rib-poking starvation, others demand belly-popping gluttony.
But the Jewish festival of Hanukkah is a festival of, well, of light. It celebrates light and all that light symbolises, and at its heart sits a nine-branched candelabra, known as the menorah.
The word ‘hanukkah’ itself means ‘dedication’ and the festival commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple by the Maccabees in 165 BCE.
For years Jewish and Greek elements had lived happily side by side, but when the Syrian Greeks led by King Antiochus attempted to stamp out Judaism in the Land of Israel and impose their own culture and religious beliefs on the indigenous Jews, the Jews struck back.
Judah the Maccabee led a revolt against the Greeks and recaptured Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple. But on entering the Temple, the Jews found it had been thoroughly defiled and all their sacred objects made impure. The Menorah had to be lit each day with pure oil, but as they searched the Temple the Maccabees found only one jug with enough pure oil to last one day. A miracle occurred and the oil lasted for eight days, enough time for new pure oil to be manufactured and brought to the Temple. In recognition of this miracle the Jewish sages established the festival of lights.
Each night of the eight nights of Hanukkah, Jews light their own menorahs in their own homes, one light on the first night, two on the second, until all eight candles are burning on the last night, signifying a desire to make their way of life stronger, warmer and brighter.
With so much encroaching darkness on so many fronts and in so many parts of the modern world, the significance of light and all that it symbolises is something we all could do with celebrating. We wish not only our Jewish but all our enlightened readers a Happy Hanukkah.
A class act
The Spectator Australia salutes George H.W. Bush, a great friend of this country, who from 1989 to 1993 served as the 41st President of the United States.
His death this week at the age of 94 has brought back to mind a very different time that saw the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, the freeing of Nelson Mandela, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the First Gulf War and the peaceful break-up of the Soviet Union.
Mikhail Gorbachev, Angela Merkel and Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, the ruling emir of Kuwait, have all spoken in the highest terms of President Bush’s powerful and positive influence on events in their countries and indeed the world. British Prime Minister Theresa May has described Bush as a ‘great statesman and a true friend of our country,’ whose ‘ethos of public service was the guiding thread of his life and an example to us all… in navigating a peaceful end to the Cold War he made the world a safer place for generations to come.’ Former President Bill Clinton who defeated Bush in the 1992 presidential race has spoken of Bush’s ‘innate and genuine decency’ and the handwritten letter Bush left in the Oval Office for incoming Clinton is the stuff of legend.
President Bush’s deep and diverse achievements and his dignity and grace in and outside public life stand in the starkest contrast to those of many other former leaders.
Particularly, alas, some in the news in this country.