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Hanukkah's story of resilience provides comfort in uncertain times

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

Hanukkah starts tonight, part of the overall holiday season, though historically a minor holiday for Jews. It celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks and the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, when a one-day supply of oil lasted for eight - a small miracle. But as Deena Prichep reports, celebrating even a small miracle is exactly what some people need.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: This past year has been hard for a lot of people. For Risa Lichtman and her wife, there were multiple miscarriages, a COVID diagnosis, death of a beloved old dog. And last November, they lost their daughter at 17 weeks gestation.

RISA LICHTMAN: It was a really difficult time last fall and winter for us, and Hanukkah was quite literally bringing the light in little by little.

PRICHEP: In the Talmud, one rabbi argues that all eight Hanukkah candles should be lit at once. But another argues for the practice eventually adopted, light one candle, then another, so the light grows day by day.

LICHTMAN: Candles just do - they do so much magic, and we needed that in our house.

PRICHEP: This past year, people have lost so much of what they took for granted - health, family gatherings, a regular day at school. Rachel Isaacs is the rabbi of Maine's Congregation Beth Israel, and teaches at Colby College. She says Hanukkah, with its story of resilience, can provide some inspiration.

RACHEL ISAACS: Not only to believe in God but in our own power, that we can rededicate things that have been defiled and lost. And we can create light when reasonable people think that darkness is our future.

PRICHEP: The story of Hanukkah is the story of a small group that should have been defeated but somehow pushed back an empire and a jar of oil that held on long after it, too, should have burned out.

ISAACS: So I think that any time the laws of nature are subverted, that's not minor, right? Any time that you have limited resources that can sustain you beyond what any reasonable person could think is possible - that's a big deal.

JOSHUA LESSER: So there is a line in Proverbs that says that a candle or a lamp is the soul of humanity.

PRICHEP: Joshua Lesser is rabbi emeritus at Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta.

LESSER: This pandemic has made it impossible for almost all of us to show up intact. We have cracks from this experience, but where we're feeling cracks, that's how the light gets in. And it's also how the light of our soul emerges and makes a difference to others.

PRICHEP: Striking a match, just like millions have done before and maybe doing at that same moment, can make a difference. Alicia Jo Rabins is an artist and Jewish ritual leader.

ALICIA JO RABINS: I think that ritual has so much power to help sanctify time that otherwise could just sort of pass and be kind of blurred into, you know, one night into the other night into the other night.

PRICHEP: Pandemic days can feel blurred, broken with not much to celebrate. But Rabins says that's why it's needed.

RABINS: It's a miracle to just be here every single moment and carry these traditions down and wake up another day and see a tiny, little match, a tiny, little flame illuminating an entire room.

PRICHEP: For some people, this year's Hanukkah lights will be a way to connect with what's been lost or a celebration of the little things that have kept them afloat or just a recognition that holding together and holding on to that light for just one more day than seems possible can be something of a miracle.

For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RABINS: (Singing) That's how the light gets in. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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