The ancient story of Hanukkah offers hope during the pandemic

Hannah Alberga is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.

Hope feels like a dubious word during a pandemic. Its allure is tempting. Its disappointment is terrifying.

With the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine now on Canadian soil, the most vulnerable are getting ready to extend their arms for inoculation, and Prime Minister has said most of the country could be vaccinated by September, 2021.

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There is light at the end of the tunnel, as the cliché goes. In the meantime, we need hope.

At this time of year, coincidentally, there is a holiday that commemorates just that.

As we dive into the pandemic-riddled winter months, its origin story could serve as a much-needed seed of optimism.

Hanukkah, an eight-day Jewish holiday, is often known for its infamous fried potato latkes and jelly-oozing powdered donuts. But there is a story, more than 2,000 years old, behind these festive food-centric traditions.

In 198 BCE, Israel was part of the Seleucid Empire. Jews were forbidden from practising their religion; the scrolls detailing Jewish laws were burned, praying was illegal and observing kosher dietary restrictions was a death sentence.

For many, abandoning their religion was inconceivable. Thousands died amid the turmoil of the period, and others fled to the hills to hide in caves. More than 30 years later, a small army of Jews, called the Maccabees, descended to Jerusalem. They fought, won control of the land and, in doing so, salvaged their way of life.

To celebrate the rededication of the Second Temple, which had been desecrated by the Seleucid king, the Maccabees recovered its menorah but only found enough oil to light it for one day. However, as the story goes, the menorah burned for eight days. A miracle.

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Jump forward to 2020. We are in the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns and restrictions have been implemented in regions across the country. A sense of normalcy – large family gatherings, the simple pleasure of a warm hug in a friend’s home and office chatter by the coffee machine – are gone. Daily treasures we never appreciated amid the hustle of daily life are now what we miss most.

A lockdown means we are anchored to our homes, not fleeing to the hills for decades. However, like the Jewish people of more than 2,000 years ago, we are estranged from our former lives. The Jews of that time looked to religion to navigate their days, from dusk till dawn. In a parallel sense, our sacred routines of rushing into crammed subway cars and breathlessly lunging into meetings – maskless and without a container of hand sanitizer in sight – seem foreign and mythic now.

But as we remain tucked away at home for the holidays, the ancient story can serve as a reminder that patience and hope can push us through. Like the miraculous cruse of oil, the timeline of the vaccine has defied what we previously believed was possible. In April, Anthony Fauci said a vaccine could arrive in 12 to 18 months. Yet here we are celebrating “V-Day” in Canada.

For some, the history of Hanukkah may feel irrelevant today. If it does, here is a modern take on hope.

On Thursday, the first night of Hanukkah, my extended family logged on to a clumsy Zoom call to sing disconnected harmonies of holiday songs while lighting the first candle of the menorah together.

My 91-year-old grandfather was on the video call. At the end, as always, he puckered his lips, signalling our pandemic “I love you” sign. I puckered mine back, feeling the warmth of his virtual love traverse my computer screen.

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That night I made a promise. When this is all over, the first trip I’ll make will be to visit him in Ottawa. In doing so, I recognized my pandemic hope: hugging him for so long that my arms cramp up and feel limp.

Whether it’s the story of Hanukkah, a loved one or sharing a plate of fries and a pitcher of beer with friends, grab onto hope. Hold it tight and don’t let go. Like the Maccabees, in time, we will reunite with our former lives and indulge in the distant luxury of normalcy.

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