Before we knew of the tragedy in Connecticut, I was speaking with a friend who had recently lost a loved one. Celebrating Hanukkah is difficult when we are grieving.
In the Talmud, though, the rabbis very first words about Hanukkah are: "Mourning is prohibited during the eight days of Hanukkah."
At the human level, none of us is capable of suspending our grief just because a holiday has arrived. In fact, the festive season may make the mourner feel worse, disconnected from the festive world around us. Our loss intensifies as we remember celebrating with our loved one in years gone by.
All the same, the rabbis command us to kindle the Hanukkah lights each night during the festival, even if we are mourning. Judaism generally urges that we perform the mitzvot, even when we don't feel up to it, in the hope that the doing will lead to the feeling -- or to use traditional Jewish language, that the keva, the fixed religious action, will lead to the kavanah, the intention.
And so, even those who grieve are called upon to kindle the lights of Hanukkah.
We who come together to celebrate Shabbat tonight, and Hanukkah recently, gather in grief, even if we haven't personally lost a loved one. The news from Connecticut is horrific and shocking: How can we even contemplate the devastation of losing a precious child, or a beloved adult, to random and senseless violence? How dare we light festive lights in the shadow of a loss of that magnitude?
Perhaps a hint is to be found in the Torah portion from last week. Pharaoh dreams about cows, seven of them, fat and healthy, and then another seven, ugly and lean. And then he dreams about ears of grain, healthy and plentiful, seven of them, soon joined by seven more, these of poor quality and scorched by the east wind. What's more, the seven skinny cows eat the fat ones. The seven parched ears eat the healthy ones. Metaphorically, the plague, in this case a famine, consumes the goodness, the health, and the plenty. The sadness consumes the joy.
But then, along comes Joseph. He interprets the dream, yes: Seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. In a very real sense, though, Joseph assures that the nightmare does not come true. Because he envisions and implements a plan to save during the learn years, he prevents the famine from consuming the plenty. Joseph doesn't ignore the difficulties ahead. Because he frankly acknowledges the hardship to come, and intervenes with God's help and Pharaoh's backing, the productive years will sustain Egypt and the surrounding world, even Joseph's own family, during hard times.
Like Joseph, we the Jewish people have not permitted our hardships to eat us alive. We have not permitted the tragedies of Jewish history to overwhelm the triumphs. We celebrated Hanukkah even on the night of the shootings in Newtown, not as a commemoration of persecution by the Syrian-Greeks, which we acknowledge, but to rejoice in the victory in the miracle. On Passover, we sit down to our Seder tables, not to recall 400 years of slavery, though we don't deny that, but to celebrate God's freedom.
And so we kindle light tonight. Yes, we are horrified by the tragic mass murder in Connecticut, a tragedy we can scarcely fathom. Even though our revelry is dampened by the sadness, we will not let our celebration be swallowed up. Hanukkah was always about light, shining through the darkness. Tonight, more than ever, we need that light. Let us kindle our lights, and sing with joy, even in this darkness.