It is December, the 12th month of the secular year and already by late afternoon, not a glimmer of light pierces the New York City winter sky. Yet, like hopeful beacons to the heavens, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is wrapped in more than five miles of Christmas lights, with the largest-ever Swavorski star glittering atop it, and the world’s largest menorah will illuminate the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street for eight nights starting on the first night of Hanukkah, Dec. 15. From the Bronx Zoo’s half a million holiday lights to Grand Central Station’s all-new light show, we are a city that artificially seeks to dispel the celestial darkness of December in the time-honored tradition, with manmade sparkle and light.
December, and I will celebrate Hanukkah with my husband and three children, lighting candles, singing songs about miracles and Maccabees, while privately pondering Hanukkah's unsanitized history, and how it relates to my ongoing obsession with divination. Hanukkah coincides with the winter solstice and, like pagan solstice celebrations, lasts for eight days. However, it is rooted in a historical event: In the second century BCE in Jerusalem, the Jews rid the Temple of the Greek Hellenists who had taken it over and were defiling it by sponsoring nude wrestling matches, promoting temple prostitution, demanding pig sacrifice, and worshipping Zeus.
In the midst of this merriment, it is also probable that the Hellenists were engaging in all sorts of winter solstice activities, which were anathema to the religious Jews of the time. The winter solstice, celebrated on Dec. 17, was a time when people exchanged gifts, offered sacrifices, and indulged in orgies. Judah Maccabee and his family fought against the Greeks, ultimately driving the Hellenists out of the Temple, but found only a small amount of kosher oil with which to re-dedicate the Temple to God. Miraculously, and undoubtedly mythically, this oil lasted for eight days, the amount of time it took to press more olive oil to purify the Temple. According to the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees, however, the Temple “was rededicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. And they celebrated the rededication of the altar for eight days.”
Judaism and miracles aside, the pagan in me is on a quest to pull aside the dark curtain of the future in my annual consultation with my astrologer, who will sum up the past year and offer insight into the coming 12 months. Together we will look at a computer-generated piece of paper in which a zodiac wheel is sliced into 12 sections called houses. In each house are the planets, with each in a specific astrological sign. My sun is in Virgo, my moon in Aquarius, and the placement of the other planets at my exact time and place of birth is even now exerting its effect on me, just as the moon pulls at earth’s tides.
“Astrology” literally means “word of the stars,” and the Akkadians believed that the Deity was spelling out the future in the stars. Had I lived a few thousand years ago, I can see myself at the front of the oracular line, asking to have my future read from sheep entrails, for I am not averse to using any method to peek ahead at what lies around the corner. Over the years, I have had my palm, Tarot cards, and Turkish coffee grounds read, but what I have never done is consult the urim and thumim.
In ancient Israel, the high priest wore a sacred “breastplate of judgment” on which were the urim and thumim, (often translated as “lightings and perfections”). These were 12 precious stones, each engraved with the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. When the High Priest was asked a question by the king, these stones acted together as an oracle and somehow revealed the answer, perhaps by lighting up to indicate yes or no.
I imagine King David and King Saul consulting the High Priest and the urim and thumim as to God’s will before setting off for war. Looking for evidence of God’s presence here on earth, did they, too, seek reassurance in that all too human, age-old and vulnerable way that Somebody was in charge and, if one but knew how, one could divine the hidden will of God on a global and a personal scale?
The mysterious urim and thumim flickered briefly in and out of ancient Israel, serving as a physical manifestation of God’s will, God’s light. The 12 stones suggest a tenuous link with the 12 zodiac houses and with astrology. In this twelfth, pitch-black month, life seems more precarious than ever, and we instinctively seek out more light, and more enlightenment, which religious rituals have historically provided. Thus the Hanukkah candles, which some believe are a leftover remnant of the pagan winter solstice practice of lighting oil lamps for the dead, as if to re-ignite their souls, and we celebrate Christmas with a tree festooned in lights, which might summon a primordial memory of the bonfires of ancient times that were lit on the winter solstice to re-invigorate the sun.
It is not only the external darkness that bedevils me, however. There is an internal pall, a stew of self-indulgent regret for that not accomplished, a dollop of self-doubt and non-specific guilt, and a pinch of general, unidentified weltanschauung, that is sometimes too much for a mortal to bear. In contrast, the external darkness is easier to address than this inner, frozen solitude.
And I wonder what destiny my astrologer will read from the “words of the stars”. Despite the rational light of science that I apply to so many areas of my life, there is this irrational light, the light of love and faith and hope that has to believe, somehow, that there is more than this, there is an embracing light at the end of the tunnel, when winter is over. And I ask my contemporary urim and thumim--shrinks, self-help books, psychics--what it's all about. What will be in my future? Show me the answer, don’t let me be deceived or deceive myself especially now when I am reflecting on the past year, and making resolutions for the new one.
In Latin, it is said Nomen es omen, a name is one’s destiny. A play on the words is Ars omnia vincent, art conquers all. Although I search for omens and answers in the heavens, this phrase suggests that art--the art of living beautifully, the art that we create on earth, the art of being in the moment here in life--conquers the words and directives of the stars. Perhaps it is our internal, human urim--art and talent and kindness and love and human genius--these personal illuminations, created and directed by a hidden hand, that light up this world and penetrate the dark.