By Rabbi Rick Sherwin
For the first time in almost 40 years, the first candle of Hanukkah coincides with Christmas Eve. We know that the two holidays have in common only calendric occurrence, when the darkness of winter descends. Each has its own symbol, generally presented as a beautiful Christmas Tree or a shining Hanukkah Menora, and each symbol has a unique, meaningful religious significance.
The Christmas Tree began as an evergreen tree, reminding Christians of Jesus’ everlasting life. The ornaments were originally red orbs, symbolic of the “apple” in the Garden of Eden, the origin of sin from which one may be freed through faith in the Christ. The tinsel was referred to as Angel’s tears, the tears that were shed as Jesus suffered on the cross. A star tops the tree, the shining light that led the wise men to Bethlehem.
The Tree, which often is placed before a window, is thus a reminder of the faith that uplifts and inspires the followers of the Christ.
The Hanukkah Menora is reminiscent of rekindling the Eternal Light upon the Maccabees’ dedication of the Jerusalem Temple. We place the candles from right to left, increasing the number as we proceed through the 8 day holiday: it is a statement of hope and faith that tomorrow will be brighter than today. We light the candles from left to right, always lighting the newest candle as a reminder that the most important day of life is today. We recall the pluralistic call ofHanuka to stand up for who we are, and to respect those who are different.
The Hanukkiya, which traditionally is placed on the windowsill, is thus a reminder of optimism and hope that inspires the Jewish People to bring light to a darkened world.
Writing in the Washington Post, Rabbi Jack Moline underscores this year’s significance of the coinciding holidays, especially in light of the polarizing presidential election and the resurgence of anti-Semitism and xenophobia: “Lighting a candle in the darkness — that is something that stands on its own. It’s a powerful image, a strong metaphor for both Christians and Jews. The start of Hanukkah and Christmas on the same night means that millions of Americans of both faiths will be lighting candles simultaneously. It’s an: Time to activate, because the darkness has been deep this year."
The world today is in desperate need of both holidays, with their respective messages of faith and hope, optimism and light. We pray that the lights of Christmas and the increasing light of the Hanukkah candles, remind us that – even in the darkest times – tomorrow will be brighter if we all shine our respective lights in the same direction.
Rick Sherwin is the Rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Longwood. He is a graduate of UCLA and was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He energetically fills spiritual services and educational programs with creativity, relevance, dialogue and humor.