Whether you spell it “Chanukah” or “Hanukkah,” the eight-day “festival of lights” will soon be upon us, and never has its powerful message rung louder than it does now in our times.
As the cold winter gradually tightens its grip, the sight of fried treats, dreidels, and the gentle glow of the menorah bring us feelings of joy and a warm sense of contentment. It is the only Jewish holiday that is celebrated by all Jews, regardless of their level of religious observance, who join together for the inspiring kindling of the menorah.
But what’s the message? What are we to take from the eight nights of Hanukkah? As we gaze into the simple yet majestic flames, what lesson must we instill within ourselves and our children?
Our rabbis have taught is the answer by way of the following fable:
After repeatedly defying his father, who ruled over a great empire, the prince was banished from the kingdom to a distant land, far from the safety and luxuries of the palace. During his first night alone, as the young prince trekked through the unfamiliar streets of a foreign land, he was violently greeted by a group of outlaws. They viciously stole the few possessions he had with him and attempted to kill him. The gang leader drew a knife from his pocket and raised it high, preparing to deal a strong, fatal blow to the helpless newcomer. Just then, the leader was struck by a rock and fell to the ground. As he lied motionless, his goons made a quick run for it. The prince looked around, eager to find the man who had saved his life, but there was no one in sight.
Several days later, again wondering amid distant fields, the prince was spotted and chased by a hungry lion. He ran as fast as he could in a desperate but seemingly hopeless attempt to escape the savage beast. He turn around to see how close the lion was, and was astonished to find the lion sprawled lifeless on the ground several yards back. The prince gingerly approached and saw that the lion had been hit by an arrow. “Thank goodness for hunters,” he thought, again thrilled to have survived what should have been a fatal attack.
The next threat to his life did not take long to present itself. As he sat peacefully counting his blessings on a park bench, the prince suddenly felt himself being lifted from his seat and placed in handcuffs.
“What’s going on?!” he cried. “I haven’t done anything wrong!”
The officers were unamused and took him directly to their king’s palace. He was dressed in prisoner attire and dropped on his knees before the mighty king, who angrily accused him of spying for his native country. The prince pleaded for his life, but to no avail. He was sentenced to death. The hanging was scheduled for the following morning.
Later that day, as the prince sat in his cell bemoaning his fate, a guard opened the door.
“You’re free to go,” he said.
The prince was as startled as he was relieved. “Thank you!” he exclaimed. “But why? What happened?” The guard gave him no explanation, and he was left imaginatively pondering the situation and trying to figure out what was going on.
That night, as a thunderstorm raged, the prince wandered through the forest in search of a place to sleep. The rain fell with a vengeance, and the thunder was louder then he’d ever heard. Lightning soon struck the ground nearby, creating a momentary flash of bright light that illuminated the entire forest. In that moment, the prince saw a figure among the trees, a man whose sleeve bore the royal emblem of his father’s empire. Wondering if perhaps it was just a mirage wrought by his homesickness, the prince waited impatiently for the next bolt of lightning so he could get another look. Sure enough, lighting struck, and there it was! High up in the trees sat members of his father’s army, who were sent to keep a close watch on the king’s son. Although the prince had been driven from the kingdom, his father had never abandoned him, and continued loving and caring for him.
It was not a rock, an arrow, or good luck that had saved the prince. It was his father, the king, the same one who condemned him to exile, who sent his servants to protect and care for his forever beloved son.
This is the message of the glowing light of Hanukkah. Life in galut (exile) is often difficult, and sometimes even too hard to bear. But as we look into the beautiful lights of the menorah, we are reminded that we are not alone, that our father, although in disguise, is watching and guiding us every step of the way!