Today, December 21st, marks the Winter Solstice. From now on, the days will lengthen, bringing more of the light that is necessary, not only for our well-being, but for life itself. Today is also the second day of the celebration of Hanukkah, and as I turned on the radio this morning, I was caught by the phrase of a Hanukkah medley. “Don’t Let the Light Go Out” was the refrain, pulling my mind back to the miracle which is the basis of this Jewish
holiday. During the “Festival of Lights”, Jews celebrate the miracle of provision of oil, a small flask containing only enough fuel to light the temple lamps for one day, but wondrously refilled so that the flames could continue burning for the eight days necessary for the purification of the temple.
Keeping the light of one’s faith alive in the midst of darkness requires a commitment that at time may feel impossible. In the following poem, taken from Meditations on the Fall and Winter Holidays, Charles Reznikoff takes up the seemingly ludicrous call to life and faith while “swollen fish float on the water” and “dead birds lie …trampled to feathers.” How does one find the strength to offer psalms and celebrate days of dedication when the surrounding decay brings on a bone-numbing weariness and seeks to crush all hope?
The answer comes from the same God who encourages songs in the darkness. “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,” declares the Lord, speaking through the prophet Zechariah to Zerubbabel, newly returned from exile to oversee the building of the same temple the Maccabees will rededicate years later. For those who struggle to put one foot ahead of the other, God promises Spirit to provide the strength needed. This may be the true miracle, states the poet, not that”the oil lasted as long as they say but that the courage of the Maccabees lasted to this day.” It is that thought which “nourishes his flickering spirit.”
Who hasn't at one point prayed for a miracle, for magical transport from the place and situation in which we find ourselves, weary, hopeless, and bereft of resources? And upon rare moments this request is granted. More often, however, the miracle comes not from being pulled out of the darkness, but, as Reznikoff suggests, by being given strength to stay the course. Fueled by a power beyond ourselves we are able to move forward, step by step, if only able to offer a word or two of praise.
The swollen dead fish float on the water;
the dead birds lie in the dust trampled to feathers;
the lights have been out a long time and the quick gentle hands that lit them --
rosy in the yellow tapers' glow--
have long ago become merely nails and little bones,
and of the mouths that said the blessing and the minds that thought it
only teeth are left and skulls, shards of skulls.
By all means, then, let us have psalms
and days of dedication anew to the old causes.
Penniless, penniless, I have come with less and still less
to this place of my need and the lack of this hour.
That was a comforting word the prophet spoke:
Not by might nor by power but by My spirit, said the Lord;
comforting, indeed, for those who have neither might nor power--
for a blade of grass, for a reed.
The miracle, of course, was not that the oil for the sacred light--
in a little cruse--lasted as long as they say;
but that the courage of the Maccabees lasted to this day:
let that nourish my flickering spirit.
Go swiftly in your chariot, my fellow Jew,
you who are blessed with horses;
and I will follow as best I can afoot,
bringing with me perhaps a word or two.
Speak your learned and witty discourses
and I will utter my word or two--
not by might not by power
but by Your Spirit, O Lord.