It is Wednesday morning and I’m sitting in the lobby of my doctor’s office waiting to be called for a rapid antigen test. Though I’ve only been sitting for about 20 minutes, it feels like it’s been hours. I can’t concentrate on anything my phone puts in front of my face. I continuously swipe from accuracy rates of different tests, to the Cobra Kai season 3 trailer, to texts of reassurance from my fiancee.
Yes, I got engaged four days ago. Thank you for the mazel tovs. I had grand plans to celebrate Chanukah with Rachel. I had gotten a gift for each day. She and I were going to make latkes on the first night, spend all Shabbos together the second, socially distance visit with my family the third… it was a whole megillah. But little did I know the night before the proposal, I had spoken briefly with my landlord who then texted me this morning to tell me she had tested positive. So now, I may not see my fiancee the entire holiday due to quarantine.
You don’t need me to tell you this whole year has been dark. It’s been the joke of the internet and beyond. However, for the most part I have felt safe. I’m a writer so, my work hasn’t been affected too much, I’m an introverted loner so my usual social distancing was now mandated, and as I said before, I’ve gotten a fiancee out of it. So all in all, I’ve been spared much of the pain, anguish, and worry so much of the world has had to endure. I guess it seems fitting that during the (hopefully) final days of the pandemic, I get hit with a dose of reality.
In a way, it’s the perfect scenario for Chanukah.
The Dark Times
Chanukah is celebrated during the darkest, coldest season of the year. On a spiritual level, the Rabbis point out that the energy of “the other side” is strongest during this time. Whether you want to entertain the idea of “the other side” spiritual forces or not, you can’t deny that this is the Christian’s most festive season. But instead of packing it up and sheltering in, Jews are supposed to put more effort into learning Torah and praising God.
But what about during a time of true darkness? During this month, coronavirus numbers have skyrocketed. Unlike during other points in the pandemic where spikes were localized to different areas, now there is a spike in every city. With fatality rates in the thousands, it’s like there’s a 9/11 level catastrophe every day. Surely the praising of God can be put on hold this year.
But the Rabbis insist, that is not the case.
During Chanukah we are supposed to abstain from fasting and eulogizing the dead. If a loved one’s yahrzeit aligns with Chanukah, the aggrieved are supposed to visit the cemetery either before or after the holiday, if at all. And if someone is sitting shiva, during the shiva minyan they still recite the praises of Hallel.
Why is it so essential to minimize our suffering during Chanukah? I think the clue is in the name of the holiday itself. Chanukah means dedication, referencing the taking back of the Temple from the Greeks. From that victory, the Jews were able to rededicate the Temple and restore the service rituals. However, from that spirit, we have an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to God.
The fact that we’re in a part of the year that is so dark, that effort to endure is so much more powerful. The ritual of saying Kaddish invokes a similar idea. All Kaddish is is a pronouncement of the greatness of God. But for a mourner to say that during their most pressing and visceral pain, the one time a person’s anger at God would be understood if not justified… for that person to praise God, it’s a testament! With that merit, the mourner elevates the soul of the departed. So too for us, in an emotionally difficult time, while everyone around us is being lazy, indulging in luxury, and gorging themselves on holiday treats, at that point to rededicate and reinvigorate ourselves to our goals and connection to Torah, that is the moment when it is most meaningful. (FYI, don’t get me wrong, we can have festive meals on Chanukah too.)
In pitch black, a tiny candle illuminates a whole room. In the daylight, that same candle might hardly be noticeable. Remember, the Chanukah prayers don’t mention any oil lasting for eight days. Instead they mention a victory of the few over the many, the weak over the strong. During Chanukah, the smallest effort, if done sincerely, can result in staggering victory.
When Negative is Positive
The nasal swab is as uncomfortable as they say it is. It’s one thing for them to press that q-tip farther into your sinuses than you thought possible. But just when you think you can’t stand it anymore, the nurse says, “Okay just about ten more seconds” it really is excruciating. Then there are the 15 minutes while you wait for the results. After that, I sure as sugar wasn’t going to spend that time in a waiting room of other potential carriers, so I paced around outside.
I don’t believe the popular phrase, “When man makes plans, God laughs” is from any Torah source. However, there is a different quote from the Talmud. “If the Jews had a fast day for every tragedy that has befallen them, there would never be a day to eat.” There’s only so much darkness we can take before we have to make the best of it. That’s what Chanukah is about. And I will celebrate it in whatever way Hashem is going to make it available.
P.S. The test was negative. But the rapid antigen tests have a high false negative rate so I’m getting another one in a few days before I see my beloved kallah.