For Chanukah: Setting the Light of the Human Spirit Against All Cruelty
I wish everyone a Good Chanukah, a Chag Urim Sameach, a happy Festival of Light. The lamps we kindle bring much needed hope and warmth in cruel and challenging times.
I also want to say Happy Thanksgiving. These celebrations go well together, calling on us to appreciate the blessings we have and, above all, to celebrate the resilience, imagination and courage of the human spirit.
In the shadow of the drowning this week of so many refugees attempting to cross the English Channel, the light of that spirit and the lamps of Chanukah must be set against all the misery, indifference, injustice, hard-heartedness and exploitative cruelty, by whoever and in whichever country it is inflicted, which culminate in such horrors. We have hosted in our home young people who have made similar crossings in equally unseaworthy dinghies; we’ve heard them speak from their hearts, and our hearts go out to them.
The story of the Maccabees as recorded in the Talmud may never have happened. Who knows if, when they reconquered the Temple in Jerusalem, they really searched among the ruins and found that one sealed vial of pure oil, or whether it actually burnt miraculously for eight cold winter days?
Yet that is precisely what happens all the time. The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger describes the matter with succinct grace. There is in every person an infinitesimal but irreducible amount of inextinguishable spirit. Just as the jar of oil found by the Maccabees was closed with the High Priest’s insignia, so this spirit is marked by the seal of God. It is the sacred core of every soul; no one can take it from us and nothing can corrupt its essence. Our challenge is to find it, deep within ourselves, and, when we have done so, not only to kindle it but also to let its flame light us.
Such a flame, when it burns in the dark days of the world, possesses a compelling magnetism. It draws others into its circle of brightness and warmth. It inspires us, illumining the pathway to our own inner light. Soon we witness how not just one sole candle, but many flames burn in the night. They are not easily extinguished; once lit, their fires cling tenaciously to the wick, casting back the darkness of harsh days, weeks, and sometimes years and even decades.
Halakhah, Jewish law, requires the Chanukah lights to be set outside, or at least in the window which overlooks the public domain. Except in times of danger, they are not a private secret which has to be concealed.
Across the world our public squares need such illumination. The spirit’s light, the heart’s warmth, the fire in the conscience, must be set at the centre of human activity, in the board room and the body politic, in council and senate chambers, in parliaments, and in the souls of all who work there and the minds of us all. With its illumination we must follow the pathway to recognise, connect with and protect what is sacred in every human life and holy in all creation.
We are not at liberty in these complex and difficult times to neglect the search for our own inner light, or to refuse to kindle it and bring it as our contribution to the square. The light of all humanity is needed, urgently.