Today, on December 25th, Chanukah and Christmas will come together at the same time, festivals of light dispersing darkness. I celebrate Chanukah, which is honored for eight days. Its seasonal message for me is especially necessary this year.
The word “Chanukah” derives from the word for “dedication.” A few thousand years ago, the Temple in Jerusalem was desecrated by its conquerors. A small band of heroes, the Maccabees, fought to reclaim it, and to dedicate it back to its true purpose. After long, strenuous effort and hard battles, they did so. Miraculously, the few triumphed against the many, the weak against the strong. And then, after those battles, amidst the vanquished darkness that the kingdom had become, a greater miracle arose. A small pot of oil was found – enough to illuminate the ravaged interior, to bring the holy light back. On the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, the Temple was rededicated, repossessed by the flickering but steady flame of candlelight.
Right now, that battle and rededication remind me of challenges faced by a good friend who was recently diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. An athlete and a vegetarian, someone who avoided taking too many Tylenols and thought nothing of 5k runs before dawn, she was of course shocked by the news. How could this sickness, this virulent invader, threaten to conquer a body so healthy and pure? A long course of radiation was ordered. It weakened both the cancer and my friend, who, toward the end, was exhausted. But still she ran, on the good days.
Her next battle will involve chemotherapy, which she sees as an assault not only on the cancer, but on the sanctity of her own, previously whole body. Almost as much as the cancer, she dreads the periodic infusions of drugs so potent that they promise to leave her hairless, weak, sometimes anemic, and always tired.
I want to tell my beloved warrior to look at the menorah glowing on my windowsill, bringing light to the winter’s bleakness. Jews light this eight-branched candelabra in honor of the pot of oil that brought light back to the Temple in its darkest moment. A tiny amount, it is said, was enough to burn for eight long days and nights. Even if it had only burned for an hour, its light was testimony to the fact that the invader was gone. In the moment the wick was lit, the enemy vanished.
I hope my friend will see her chemotherapy infusions as troops of noble Maccabees, doing the almost-impossible, and winning. And I hope that this winter, she, and all her fellow fighters, will rededicate her life to the light of hope that triumphs over all.