There’s a sweet Chanukah offering on the internet where a young man talks about how bright and joyful the Christmas lights are on so many homes in his neighborhood. As he is walking towards his home, the snow is falling…lightly at first, but more and more heavily, as the video goes on. The family is gathered in his house and he comes in in time to light the Shamash and the first candle for the first night of Chanukah and the family sings lovely songs, and shares dreidel playing, and exchanging Chanukah gifts and Chanukah gelt. As he places the Chanukiah in the window and looks out on the snow-scaped neighborhood, there’s no escaping the fact that the non-Jewish homes around the neighborhood look much more, well, ‘’jolly,” than the few Jewish homes in the neighborhood. But suddenly the snowfall, now quite a storm, causes an electricity outtage and the homes are plunged into darkness. As he adjusts to the lack of electricity, he realizes that those homes with Chanukah menorahs, Chanukiot, in their windows are shedding the only light in the whole neighborhood….and is a light filled with joy and meaning, love and hope. Sweet, yes?
Sunday evening, during the darkest days of the year, Jewish families everywhere will be lighting that first candle and, this year, bringing in much-needed Chanukah joy. Chanukah is known as Chag HaUrim, the festival of lights. Hopefully we will sing of the miracles that took place during the days of the Maccabees, how that rag-tag group miraculously bettered the Syrian-Greek army and rededicated the Temple (big T) in Jerusalem; and how the only remaining cruse of oil lasted for eight days and nights.
Before the first official candle can be lit, however, we have to light the custodial candle, the Shamash. And each night we first light the Shamash before we can kindle the additional lights.
As we gaze into the lights of the Chanukiah, I often think about the importance of that Shamash…and what it means to be the one to light others. That is essentially what a leader does, enlightens others, sparks others (so to speak) and, thereby, increases the light for all.
Tonight, I am asking each of us to become a virtual Shamash. The days are not only dark, but our current times are dark. Dark and challenging. Like children needing a nightlight, we need to dispel the darkness and challenges of fear….both either real or perceived and we need to start by lighting our own candle-self. Children often imagine bogeymen in the darkness. One of our bogeymen is our own prejudice. Someone once said, “Prejudice is a labor saving device. It enables one to form opinions without bothering to dig up the facts.”
We may be too close to what’s happening here in the United States to dispassionately analyze it; but let’s look at what’s happening in Israel. Israel is often the canary in the coal mine. In Israel, the fact is that most Israeli Muslim Arabs are loyal and contributing members of society; I believe, likewise, that most American Muslims are also loyal and contributing members of society.
But the recent spate of Palestinians knifing attacks has triggered instances of fear turning to anger and hate, resulting in several irrational knifings by Israelis…some having been perpetrated on fellow Jews, who were mistaken to be Palestinian.
We must be careful, here in the United States, to not allow our growing Islamophobia get the better of us.
The political rhetoric doesn’t help either. As it stirs up our fears, we begin to look at one another with suspicion. This is anathema to our Jewish tradition. Do you know how many times our TaNaCh tells us to treat the stranger fairly, to welcome the stranger, to do right by the stranger? I can count at least 36 times….two-times-chai!
Yesterday morning, the Israeli police finally announced that they might have identified and seized the murderers of the Dawabshe family in Duma village. You may recall the incident, when the father, Saed, mother, Riham, and 18-month-old baby, Ali, were murdered in their sleep. This happened July 31st. You can be sure that had it been an Israeli family set upon by Muslims, the perpetrators would have been rounded up immediately, their homes destroyed, and swift judicial action. But, it has taken months for the Israeli police to find the perpetrators. In fact, this was one of the incidents that was motivated by the fear mongering of a small group of ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbis who have incited people to distrust the “other.” My friend, Anat Hoffman, the activist attorney working with the Women of the Wall and now with the Israel Religious Action Committee, has been working doggedly to bring legal action against those Israelis who have fomented fear and hatred of the “other,” resulting in such atrocities as the Duma killings. She also feels that the length of time it was taking for the Israelis to find the perpetrators of the Duma killings was one of the major reasons for the latest uprising.
Our Jewish tradition gave the world many gifts. We, ourselves, were divinely instructed to live exemplary lives. While we may not always hit the mark, few of us are satisfied with the way things are; most of us are constantly trying to both better our own behavior and better the world. The most challenging commandment with which we are currently dealing, I believe, is “V’ahavta l’rayecha kamocha”…to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are angry with the radical Islamist terrorists; we are concerned; and many are afraid. We need to be aware, to be vigilant: “if we see something, we say something;” but we need not live in the darkness of fear, nor let that engender hate and senseless retribution. And whether that is in Israel, or here at home, we need to constantly remember to love the stranger, particularly, these days, if he or she is a Muslim.
Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoya, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, reminding us of the plague of darkness, taught that because of the darkness “each person did not see his brother” (Ex. 10:23)–that is, the darkness in their own eyes was a separation wall, such that each person could not see or comprehend the value of his brother. Therefore, may it be Your will, our G-d and G-d of our ancestors, to remove the separation wall and the darkness from our eyes, that we may see and be seen by the House of Ishmael as brothers, for “do we not all have a single Parent?” (Malachi 2:10) And know that we yearn for the day when David’s psalm will be sung together: “…Ma Tov u-Ma Naim[R1] , Shevet achim gam yachad.” How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together. (Psalm 133:1)
And, as we enter into Chanukah, please take to heart that when we light one candle we become custodians of Judaism; we become barriers against senseless hate and prejudice; we provide the light to see the G-d-spark within each of us. We become the Shamash to make us all an “ohr la-goyim,” a light unto the nations.
Shabbat Shalom. Chag Ha-Urim Sameiach.