By Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe
Tonight — on Thursday, Dec. 10 — Jews will light the first candle of Hanukkah, bringing our community an early and well-needed Festival of Light. The holiday’s name means “dedication,” and its observance celebrates the rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean revolt of 165 BCE. Tradition tells us that when the temple was restored, the oil in its lamp was running short. In a miracle, it lasted the eight days needed to ensure that the eternal light did not go out.
This week, while we cannot gather like we do every other year, Jewish families will follow the traditions of singing songs, spinning a top called a dreidel to win pieces of candy, giving gifts and eating foods made with oil — to remember the oil for the eternal light — potato pancakes called latkes, and jelly donuts called sufganiot. While I love all these traditions, I see Hannukah’s beauty in the simplicity of its essential ritual: lighting candles each night for eight nights and setting the menorah in the window, in view of the street. The menorah symbolizes a quiet commitment, calling us every year to rededicate ourselves to spreading light, standing up for our beliefs and standing with every other community in doing the same. In addition to a blessing over lighting the candles, Jews recite a second blessing in gratitude for the miracle of survival some 2000 years ago, “in those days at this time.”
Today, one community celebrating our survival and defending our own beliefs is not enough. All of us must stand with each other, affirm the beauty and importance of our many religious traditions and ensure the well-being of every family among us. My own congregation, Temple Rodef Shalom, felt this value expressed by the people of Falls Church two years ago, when we held a service lighting 13 candles, for the 11 Jews killed in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and two African Americans in a Kentucky supermarket, during the same week. We opened our service to the public and were overwhelmed by the response. Everyone there — people representing every religion and group in our region — was moved by the sight of over two thousand people crowded into our building. At the end of the service, 40 interfaith clergy from the area ascended onto the bema in a show of solidarity and comradery. Where 2,000 years ago, each of us had to stand for ourselves, today, we all stand together.
Coming together in our gathering places is a fundamental way to break down barriers and build relationships. Over the past eight months, during which such gatherings have been impossible, we are reminded of their importance. Now, especially as winter comes, we are forced to find other ways to connect. And, just as we need to stand with each other when any one community is under threat, we must come together and help each other when dangers to health and financial hardship threaten many among us.
This week, while the pandemic kept me from leaving my own home, I met over Zoom with nearly 300 of my neighbors in another interfaith gathering. We shared our experiences and our concerns as we face this unique challenge. We heard from parents, struggling to help their children learn in online school; from workers who have lost their jobs and from one employee at a local grocery store, whose job is to sanitize the shelves, tables, checkout counters and payment consoles the customers will use.
Every day, he risks his own health to protect the rest of us. He admitted that he is nervous to go to work in the morning and stay there all day. We were powerless to change that reality. However, I believe it meant something to him to be seen and heard.
Each individual among us faces a different challenge in this moment, and every group has a different way of spreading our light. Like a kindled menorah shining in the window, we must affirm and be true to our own beliefs. We must look for the opportunities that exist to see each other’s experience. And, we must find ways to stand together. Wishing all of you a season of faith, light and hope.
Jeffrey Saxe is a rabbi at the Temple Rodef Shalom