I remember the moment Adira and I first left the hospital after Lilah was born. We had just gone through the emotional and physical avalanche of giving birth, which felt like the culmination of nine long months of preparation, anxiety, excitement, and mystery. Finally, we had reached what we perceived to be this climactic moment of actually having our (thank God) beautiful, healthy baby girl in our arms, of being blessed to actually hold the child that we so deeply wanted. But the vision of our yearning and our dreams, apparently, did not extend far beyond the delivery room; and as Lankenau Hospital’s automatic glass doors closed behind us, Adira and I both looked at each other, panicked, saying “So what do we do now?”
How often does this happen to us in our lives? We spend so much time and energy preparing for a particular moment, we strive toward specific goals, and then, upon achieving those goals, are challenged by the next steps that follow those achievements which we did not foresee, or we struggle to figure out what we’re supposed to do next.
We spend years studying and working to attain that dream job, only to discover that after reaching our ambition, there is the actual frustrating and often unexciting business of having to do that job. We begin preparing two or three years in advance for a Bar Mitzvah ceremony that becomes like a graduation ceremony from Judaism and the Jewish community. We spend months planning a wedding without giving much thought to the realities and inevitable challenges of the married life that follows. And many of us, after reaching the high points in our lives, find ourselves desperately unprepared for what comes next. Some aspects of our lives might even fall apart as a result.
That’s precisely what happened to the Maccabees. They organized and fought fiercely to free the land of Israel from Greek rule and to purify God’s Temple from its heathen defilement. Miraculously, they succeeded. But then the dust settled. The Greeks were expelled, the Jews were liberated, and the Temple was rededicated. And the Maccabees had to pivot from rebellion to governance. Unfortunately, the part of the story we often do not hear is that our beloved revolutionaries found themselves wholly unprepared and unqualified for the work of actually rebuilding and sustaining a viable state. Their kingdom began in triumph, but soon devolved into brutality, oppression, and corruption. It crumbled within less than a century, giving way to an occupying force in the Roman empire that was more powerful and terrifying than the Greeks had been.
The Maccabees’ devastating lack of vision is one of the reasons that the rabbis of the Talmud, writing over half a millennium later, all but erased the memory of the rebellion against Greece. Instead, they focused on the rededication of the Temple. In so doing, they taught a crucial lesson:
Recall that dedication means to devote someone or something for a particular purpose. In other words, to dedicate is to take something that already exists and commit it to a cause that has not yet been realized, to re-appropriate the past in service of the future. The rabbis of the Talmud were teaching us that a successful rebellion is insignificant compared to a rededication, that achieving is far less important than serving, that victory is trivial compared to purpose. We would be wise, our rabbis insist, to focus less on the question of “What is the most I can accomplish?” than on the questions of “Where can I best serve? What do God and others need from me?” By focusing on the former, we are bound to be unprepared for what comes next. By focusing on the latter we will always have a North Star to follow.
On the 8th Night of Hanukkah, we reach the climax of the holiday. After 8 nights of joyous and engaged celebration, most of us will put away our hanukkiyot (Hanukkah menorahs), satisfied that we’ve accomplished another successful commemoration. But our ancient rabbis, in their subtle way, invite us to pause and ask ourselves, “So what do we do now?” The answer, of course, is to rededicate ourselves, to a new year of serving God and others through Torah and holy deeds.
Lights, even miraculous ones, eventually go out. To continue to see the way forward, we need new sources. “A mitzvah is a candle, and Torah is light,” teaches the Book of Proverbs (6:23). Hanukkah is about dedication. Not just of an ancient Temple; but of ourselves as well. When Hanukkah ends, we can devote our lives to godly purpose, and in so doing, we can continue to light up our world.