Home‎ > ‎Newsletters‎ > ‎

Dvar Torah by Stef Jadd Susnow

Stef is in her second year of teaching at the Chicagoland Jewish High School, Deerfield, IL

Thanksgiving is just moments away and while I am tempted to make a drash on 'hodu' and 'hoda'ah', I will so refrain. Instead, I would like to draw our attention to another holiday just around the bend, Chanukah. Returning to the States last year after three Stefyears in Israel, I was almost surprised as I rediscovered the age old tension between Chanukah and Christmas. The December Dilemma penetrates shopping malls, grocery stores, coffee shops and even my classroom. A number of my students with Christian family members often report to me that Christmas is one of their favorite holidays, even if they don't celebrate it in their own homes. For many of them it is like Thanksgiving, but with presents! Family comes together in good spirit, food is consumed, songs are sung. It feels like a typical chag, with the added element of consumerism. 

Even though Chanukah comes early this year, its juxtaposition to Christmas, in the dead of winter, is no mere coincidence. Isaac Newton argued that the date of Christmas was selected to correspond with the winter solstice, which the Romans celebrated on December 25. Chanukah too has its connections to this astronomical event, the day in which we recognize the reversal of the lengthening of nights and shortening of days. This idea is presented in a story found in the Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zara 8a:

When Adam HaRishon saw that the days were continually shortening in length he said: "Oy! Perhaps it is because I have sinned that the world is becoming dark and returning to 'tohu' and 'vohu'. And this is the death that has been placed on me from the heavens."He stood and sat for eight days in fasting and prayer.When he reached the season of Tevet and realized the days were beginning to lengthen, he said: "This is just the way of the world." He went and made an eighth day festival. 

The Gemara here may be pointing us to yet another origin of the Chanukah festival. In addition to winning a war deemed impossible and a miraculous long-lasting flame, we also have a commemoration of man's first foray into winter, his emergence from the short days and long dark nights and his realization of how God's complex world works. As he first prayed and then celebrated for eight days, we too celebrate for eight days. As we enter into the darkness of winter that evokes the fear of returning to 'tohu' and 'vohu', to the state of pre-being, we light candles to warm our hearts and minds and remind us that the light will return. In the meantime, let's celebrate!

Chag Sameach