The sky is black as midnight at six in the morning; by the time I get home from work, the sun has already set. The wind is chilly here in Hudson, Wisconsin.
As Kislev begins, we are settling into a frigid and dark new normal that will last for the next couple of months, maybe more. But then the warmth and sunlight will return as before. It’s just a cycle.
In seeking to understand this cycle, ancient mythologies often envisioned it as a dualistic battle between supernatural forces. This forms a dramatic narrative: The personification of light and warmth succumbs to the power of cold darkness. But soon the tables are turned, and the forces of light prevail.
It’s a compelling tale, but not a Jewish or biblical one. In our worldview, the same God who forged the light also brought darkness into being. To him belongs not only the nourishing warmth but also the frigid cold.
According to Jewish sources, it was in Kislev when God assured Noah,
While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease. (Genesis 8:22)
Our God is the source of all these seasonal changes. Here in Hudson, we understand well the words of the Psalm:
He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly. He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs; who can stand before his cold? He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow and the waters flow. (Psalm 147:15-18)
This is not to say that darkness is light, or that cold is warmth. Truly, our task is to dispel darkness and to shine a light. However, one must not think that the presence of darkness in any way indicates failure or weakness on the part of our Almighty Creator. Rather, it is the darkness that gives our light context and purpose.
On the first of Kislev, we honor the memory of Chaim Yedidiah Pollak (a.k.a. Theophilus Lucky). As a Torah-observant, Jewish follower of Yeshua who passed on this date in 1916, he was truly a light in his generation. In his writings, he taught about the symbolism and origin of the light of the Hanukkah candles:
When times of trouble and evil come upon us, darkness clouds our eyes, blinding us, but when HaShem gives us comfort and salvation, our eyes are illuminated. The Greek empire came and blinded the Israelites during those days and in that time, and they forced the Israelites to write on the horn of an ox, “We have no portion in the God of Israel” [see Genesis Rabbah 2:4], and there was darkness throughout the entire land of Israel. HaShem’s compassions were aroused, and he called out to them, saying, “Arise, Daughter of Zion; arise and shine. My light is in your hand, and your light is in mine. For the commandments are the lamp and the Torah is the light, and if you observe the Torah and the commandments you will have life, joy, and light!”
Pollak continues by describing the familiar story of the Maccabees lighting the menorah in the Temple. The lighting of Hanukkah lamps quickly became a firm component of Jewish life. Pollak explains how this practice became systematized:
The scholars of the Talmud say that these lights we kindle make known the salvation that HaShem wrought for us and for all mankind, and this act reveals and popularizes the miracle. Therefore they affixed laws and regulations of where to light the menorah, when, and how many candles to light.
In other words, by lighting the Hanukkah lights in a consistent way, we communicate a clear message. Pollak noted that in the early centuries there was a disagreement between the schools of Hillel and Shammai about how exactly to light the candles, but both agreed that the total number of candles would be thirty-six. (This count does not include the shammash.) What is the significance of thirty-six candles? Pollak cites Rabbi Elazar Rokeach:
We light thirty-six candles to celebrate the first light that shone upon the first man for thirty-six hours, then afterward the Holy One, blessed be he, concealed it for the righteous. This is the Messiah who is hidden in the Torah, and to everyone who studies Torah with a pure heart, the hidden light—the light of Messiah—is revealed to him.
Just as the dark winter months are eventually supplanted by the warm summer sun, the light of Messiah will soon illuminate the earth in the kingdom. May it be soon!