Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a Holocaust survivor who grew to become a prominent British rabbi, once told a story about the time he shared a barrack in Auschwitz with his father:
In spite of the unspeakable horror, oppression and hardship, many Jews held onto what scraps of Jewish religious observance as they were able. One midwinter evening one of the inmates reminded us that tonight was the first night of Chanukah, the festival of lights. My father constructed a little Chanukah menorah out of scrap metal. For a wick, he took some threads from his prison uniform. For oil, he used some butter that he somehow obtained from a guard. Such observances were strictly “verboten,” but we were used to taking risks. Rather, I protested at the “waste”of precious calories. Would it not be better to share the butter on a crust of bread than burn it? “Hugo,” said my father, “both you and I know that a person can live a very long time without food. But Hugo, I tell you, a person cannot live a single day without hope.”
Hope, of course, is the expectation that something good will happen, even though past experience or present circumstance should rightly lead one to believe otherwise. This definition makes hope sound like delusional fantasy. It’s not. Hope is a perspective we can choose to adopt about our experiences, a posture that helps us determine the next best course of action. Only if we choose to hope when looking at pervasive and stubborn negative circumstances in our lives and world, only if we believe that brokenness is not inevitable, will we remain committed to doing what is necessary to pursue a better future. On the other hand, when we despair, our spirits wither, our passions wane, and we leave things as they are, compounding upon their inevitability.
That’s why neither great warriors nor long-lasting oil jugs are the real heroes of Hanukkah. The real hero of Hanukkah is hope. Hope is what empowered a motley crew of rural priests to rebel against the mighty Greek King Antiochus IV and his far more powerful army. Hope is what encouraged those Maccabees to persist in their struggle for freedom even though greatly outnumbered and outmatched. Hope is why some anonymous Temple Priest hid a cruse of kosher oil while the Greeks controlled and defiled the Temple, with the expectation that, one day the Menorah would be relit. And hope is why the Maccabees poured the contents of their only oil cruse into the Menorah, even though they needed an 8 day supply. Without hope, there would be no Hanukkah, and there would be no Judaism. So the lights we kindle on Hanukkah are flames of hope, essential for illuminating a dark world.
“A person cannot live a single day without hope.” So often, it can feel that there is too much darkness in our lives and in our world to repair. Without hope, without the belief that things can and will be better, we might give up working to improve it. Why waste our time and energy laboring on the futile?
But Judaism insists we work to make our world a more compassionate, just, and peaceful place. And if that’s our task, then nothing is more important than hope. Only through hope, only through believing that our lives and our world can be repaired despite prevalent and stubborn brokenness, will we remain committed to doing what is necessary to fix it. As Rabbi Gryn’s father put it, “Never let it go out. Not here. Not anywhere.”