Tetzaveh

“And you will command the children of Israel to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for lighting, to cause a lamp to burn continually (ner tamid)” (Exodus 27:20-12)

This first mitzvah of the tabernacle is interesting for several reasons. It echoes the first words of God at creation– y’hi or – let there be light. And in a narrative dedicated to the clothing and behaviour of the priests, the command here is communal – the responsibility for an eternal light belongs to the people, not the priesthood. The lamp sits facing the ark curtain, prepared and lit by the priests each evening to burn through till the morning. In the parallel passage in Leviticus 24:2-4 the ner tamid clearly has several flames, and far from hanging over the ark as a modern ner tamid does, it is part of a lampstand on the opposite wall to the ark– the seven branched menorah. Indeed during the temple period its other name was the ner ma’aravi, the western light. It is thought that while all the lights burned through the night, only one was kept burning continually (1Sam 3:3)

Why does the bible ask us to keep a small light burning continually since clearly the function of lighting the sacred space is done by the other lights? And why must we repeatedly light more lights?  We often say the ner tamid is a reminder of God’s continuing presence in our world, a small beacon of hope that stays with us as the pillar of fire guided us in the desert. Yet this is not enough. The echo of y’hi or reminds us that we too must play our role in the creation of our world. Every day we must tend to this work. The people must bring the prepared oil – this is our job and no one else’s.

 

written for “the bible says what?” Jewish News February 2019

Chanukah Readings: It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness

Bible tells us that the first thing that God did having created the heavens and the earth was to utter the words “Let there be light”, and there was light. God saw the light was good, and God divided the light from the darkness, and so began the ordering of a world which would ultimately sustain and nourish humanity, and they in turn would work with God to continue the process of perfecting creation.

Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, comes to remind us of the need to continue that work, even though it might sometimes seem that the darkness is all enveloping, and the world has reverted to the state of primordial chaos filled with terrifying uncontrolled forces that is contained in the phrase “tohu va’vohu”

Just as light was the catalyst for the world to develop into a place where we could live and thrive, so too light is the response we must make when faced with a darkening world. Just as bible commands that a light was to be continually burning in the tent of meeting outside the veil of testimony, and the priesthood had to tend to it evening and morning in order to keep it in good order as an eternal statute for the generations, (Exodus 27:20 and Lev 24:2) so too we need our ner tamid, our continually tended and burning light, to remind us not only of God’s compassionate and watchful presence in the world, but also of our obligation to bring God’s presence further into the world. As the book of Proverbs tells us,” Ki ner mitzvah, v’torah or : the commandment is a lamp and torah is light” – to act as God wishes us to act brings light into our world. (6:23)

Chanukah, like all festivals of light, comes in the winter darkness to remind us that the glow of even a small candle can alleviate the deep darkness, and as the Talmud reminds us “the candle of one person can bring light to many people” (Shabbat 122a)

There are many small candles lit in the world, many people doing good work in creative and imaginative ways, tending to the ner tamid, keeping the light of hope alive. Our High Holy Day confession includes the phrase “Al cheit she’chatanu lefanecha b’tim’hon ley’vav – For the sin we have committed before you by giving in to despair” and I must confess that each time I read the news of what is happening in the world, the way so many people are terrorised and terrified, violently murdered or imprisoned or forced to live hand to mouth, treated without compassion or empathy, uprooted and fleeing for their lives or stuck in a societal stratum below any human dignity, I give in, for a while, to despair. And when I see how governments oppress and harass their own people whom they are supposed to protect and support, close their eyes to the pain of their public and to the social justice values of civil society I succumb to frustration and fury that “they” are misusing their power so freely, unchallenged and unrestrained. And I come close to despair.

But then I remember those many people and organisations, those many small candles lit and tended to, which challenge the dejection and despondency and allow me to hope, to connect, to believe that the prophetic values of the Hebrew bible are not only alive and well, but are fighting back hard to be heard and to be seen, to bring light back into the world

So here are eight organisations of civil society in Israel who bring me hope. Eight organisations in whose light we see God’s light, who speak out for justice because, like Rav Kook, they do not have the power to keep silent. One for each of the nights of Chanukah: as you light the small flame of each candle, remember the words of Isaiah “I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do for them, and not forsake them.” (42:16)

 

First Night of Chanukah:   Tag Meir – The Tag of Light

Founded in Jerusalem in 2011 in response to Tag Mechir (price tag), this is the largest grassroots organisation in Israel that works against hate crime and religious racism in Israel. Transcending religious divides, Tag Meir is an umbrella organisation for a coalition of groups who support and campaign for democratic and Jewish value of justice for all the people. It protests violence and responds to victims of violence. Tag Meir’s mission is to connect different groups in Israeli society in the battle to eradicate racism and violence, and to educate for tolerance and empathy, as well as creating public events to raise and amplify the voice of those committed to democratic values. They offer Israelis the chance to voice their opposition to violence, to publicise it to all who need to hear, from Government to the victims themselves. They hold demonstrations and vigils, they pay condolence calls to victims of terror, they repaint over racist graffiti, they offer material support to religious places defaced. They meet with politicians and decision makers to end incitement and inflammatory rhetoric. Their motto : Or Bimkom Terror – Light instead of terror.http://www.tagmeiren.media-sb.co.il/

 

tag meir

Second night of Chanukah :   The Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Centre in Akko

The vision and life’s work of Mohammed Fahili, this is the only Jewish- Arab Community Centre in Israel. It began in 1985 as a simple after-school club run by volunteers and located in the communal bomb shelter of a poor neighbourhood, this was part of an effort by the local Jewish and Arab residents to improve their living environment.  In 1991 the Clore Israel Foundation funded the construction of a purpose-built community centre.

The Centre’s aim is to provide high-quality, low-cost activities for Akko’s residents regardless of ethnicity or ability to pay. It functions as an important part of the community, offering enrichment programmes from infants to pensioners, allowing the people of Akko to meet over shared interests and needs, informally connecting people and building strong relationships. Many of the children that they cater for are from large, poor families and are vulnerable to the dangers of street life.  They help combat school drop-out by offering extra-curricular activities and programmes, nurturing Akko’s children to help them achieve a future. They also offer vital programmes for women and a cultural club for pensioners from the Former Soviet Union.

The Centre is an independent, voluntarily funded, not-for-profit, non-political and unaffiliated organisation.  It is funded almost entirely by voluntary donations from people who believe in the importance of their work in creating a better future in the region.

 

Fahili himself is an inspiration a candle in a dark room. With courage, humility and perseverance he has created an oasis of hope, a meeting place, a model for how Israeli society can be. http://ajcenter.org.il/

fahili

 

 

Third night of Chanukah:  Hiddush For Religious Freedom and Equality

Founded in 2009, Hiddush works through advocacy and public education to strengthen Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Taking as its platform the 1948 Declaration of Independence, which states “”The State of Israel … will ensure complete equality of social and political rights of all its inhabitants irrespective of religion … it will guarantee freedom of religion and conscience” Hiddush is a partnership between Israeli Jews and World Jewry to ensure that this guarantee remains at the centre of the Israeli Government’s policy.
www.hiddush.org

 

 

Fourth Night of Chanukah:  YTheater Project Jerusalem

Founded in September 2009 in Jerusalem, this is the Israeli-Palestinian Community Theatre for a Change. YTheater engages Israelis and Palestinians together in a creative process of empowerment and responsibility. Using activist community theatre methods, it builds relationships, nurtures civic virtues, and helps the participants to work together strategically. YTheater runs workshops for Jewish, Arab, and Anglo youth and young adults to empower leadership.

 

“We are Palestinians and Israelis. Our lives and world-views usually exclude one another. We agree about almost nothing.   We are positioned in opposition. Our souls are on the line. We burn with the passion of the Middle East. We grope for new pathways – to break through impasses, to un-lock the grid of violence, and to mend what is broken. Creating theatre is our shared language; the stage is our meeting point. We are Muslims, Jews, Christians and Druze who collaborate. We struggle, we do not whitewash. We face difference and difficulty with caring and respect. Awe for life feeds our commitment to persevere, to create, to pry open our own hearts and the hearts of our audiences and participants. YTheater Project Jerusalem explores, interprets and innovates. We delve deeply into our behaviour, traditions, and societies.  We critique, provoke, and even, humbly, propose.In a region raw with conflict and pain, we rehearse for better life together. We are contributing to the infrastructure for better Palestinian and Israeli civil society.  YTheater builds relationships that heighten confidence and active will toward peace.”       Website    http://ytheater.org

 

 

Fifth night of Chanukah:        The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants

The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, founded in 1998, is Israel’s leading organization protecting the rights of refugees, migrant workers and victims of human trafficking. For over 15 years Hotline staff and volunteers have been visiting Israel’s immigration detention centres to monitor conditions, meet with detainees and provide paralegal intervention and legal representation. We represent some of the most vulnerable people in Israel and advocate for government policies consistent with a just, equal and democratic Israel.

By combining client advocacy with impact litigation, policy initiatives and public outreach, we aim to achieve broad-based, systematic improvements in policies and practices ensuring that the human rights of migrants in Israel are respected.

Their main activities are Crisis Intervention, Legal Action and Public Policy and Education.       Website http://hotline.org.il/en/about-us/

Sixth Night of Chanukah: The Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality

In 1997, a group of concerned Arab and Jewish residents of the Negev (the southern desert region of Israel) established the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality to provide a framework for Jewish-Arab collaborative efforts in the struggle for civil equality and the advancement of mutual tolerance and coexistence. The Forum, also known as “Dukium” in Hebrew, is unique in being the only Arab-Jewish organization established in the Negev that remains focused solely on the specific problems confronting the Negev.

The Forum’s activities and projects are based on the principle of Arab-Jewish cooperation and among their members are leaders of the Negev Arab community and academics. As a joint Jewish-Arab group we maintain a balance and equal partnership in the bodies of the organization as well as in the decision-making processes.

NCF is engaged in a wide range of grassroots activities. They have worked with community leaders in “unrecognized” Bedouin villages to deliver vital basic services to their communities. In the spirit of coexistence, Bedouin residents and Jewish volunteers work together to provide clean water, nursery schools, access roads and rubbish removal systems to over a dozen villages.

In collaboration with other NGOs, the NCF has filed legal petitions against discriminatory practices affecting Bedouin communities in the Negev. For example, as a result of a joint petition submitted to the Israeli Supreme Court in 2005, the government agreed to properly dispose of sewage flowing through Um Batin. Other petitions have led to the establishment of health clinics in ten unrecognized villages and to the prohibition of toxic crop spraying.   Website www.Dukium.org

Seventh Night of Chanukah:    Breaking the Silence

“Breaking the Silence is an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. We endeavour to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life.

We collect and publish testimonies from soldiers who, like us, have served in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem since September 2000, and hold lectures, house meetings, and other public events which bring to light the reality in the Territories through the voice of former combatants. We also conduct tours in Hebron and the South Hebron Hills region, with the aim of giving the Israeli public access to the reality which exists minutes from their own homes, yet is rarely portrayed in the media.

Founded in March 2004 by a group of soldiers who served in Hebron, Breaking the Silence has since acquired a special standing in the eyes of the Israeli public and in the media, as it is unique in giving voice to the experience of soldiers. To date, the organization has collected testimonies from over a 1,000 soldiers who represent all strata of Israeli society and cover nearly all units that operate in the Territories.”

 

Eighth Night of Chanukah:        Shomrei Mishpat: Rabbis for Human Rights

“Founded in 1988, Rabbis for Human Rights is the only rabbinic voice in Israel that is explicitly dedicated to human rights. Representing over 100 Israeli rabbis and rabbinical students from different streams of Judaism, we derive our authority from our Jewish tradition and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our mission is to inform the Israeli public about human rights violations, and to pressure the State institutions to redress these injustices. In a time in which a nationalist and isolationist understanding of Jewish tradition is heard frequently and loudly, Rabbis for Human Rights give expression to the traditional Jewish responsibility for the safety and welfare of the stranger, the different and the weak, the convert, the widow and the orphan.

RHR works primarily in the following 4 fields:

Socioeconomic Justice Work in Israel:

Rights of the Poor: RHR focuses on raising awareness and lobbying the Knesset for better economic rights for impoverished Israelis at the national level. At the local level, our Rights Centre in Hadera helps hundreds of Jews and Arab citizens obtain socioeconomic rights that have been denied to them, and run empowerment and advocacy groups of local Arab and Jewish citizens  from the Hadera area who focus and advocate for policy changes of their choosing.

Rights to Public Housing: RHR provides legal representation for public housing tenants in Beit She’an, Beersheva, and Hadera whose housing does not meet their needs or who are facing eviction.

 

Human Rights Work in the Occupied Territories: For example the Olive Tree Campaign: RHR works year round with Palestinian farmers from several dozen villages in the Occupied Territories, to ensure that they can regularly access their agricultural lands, often denied to them because of their proximity to Israeli settlements.. During Tu B’shvat, we purchase and bring hundreds of Israeli and international volunteers together with Palestinians to plant some 2,500 olive trees in areas where settlers have cut, uprooted and/or burned trees in acts of vandalism and arson.

Challenging Land Confiscation in the Occupied Territories: RHR works to legally prevent or reverse the takeover of Palestinian lands in Area C, and ensure that Palestinian farmers can safely access those lands. We continually monitor the implementation of previous rulings on land access issues.

Promoting Human Rights Education in Israel: RHR works in 12 pre-military academies, exposing every year some 600 young Israelis to our human rights teachings based on our rabbinic interpretation of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. We believe that teaching human rights to young people who then continue onto their army service better equips them to deal humanely with the realities on the ground.

 

Human Rights Yeshivas: For more than a decade, RHR has been teaching about human rights and Judaism to Israeli university students. We currently run 2 human rights yeshivas, with a total of 40 participants. Students who participate in the program receive a stipend, and intern in a human rights or social change organization in order to understand more deeply the challenges facing Israeli society.”

 

RHR_logo_for-Site

 

LIGHTING THE CHANUKAH CANDLES: BLESSINGS

Candles are added to the Chanukiah from right to left but are lit from left to right.

(On the Shabbat of Chanukah, light the Chanukah lights first and only then the Shabbat candles)

Light the shamash first, then use it to kindle the rest of the Hanukkah lights. As you do, say or sing:

Baruch atah Adonai ,Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah   Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes us holy through doing the mitzvot, and commands us to light the lights of Chanukah.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, she-asah nissim la’avoteinu bayamim ha’hem Baz’man hazeh. Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in days of old at this season.

 

And on the first night only, add the blessing:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, she’hecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higianu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this season.

 

As you light the other lights (or after you have finished lighting) recite the following:

Hanerot halalu anu madlikin / Al ha’te’shu’ot v’al ha-nissim v’al ha’nifla’ot, Sheh’aseeta la’avoteinu bayamim ha’hem biz’man hazeh/ Al y’dei kohaneh’cha ha’kedoshim; V’chol sh’monat Y’mei Chanukah Hanerot halalu kodesh hem, V’ein lanu reshut le’hishtameish ba’hen/ Ela lirotan bilvad, k’dei lehodot ul’haleil le’shimcha hagadol Al nisse’cha Ve’al niflotecha Ve’al yeshu’ote’cha.

We kindle these lights to commemorate the saving acts, miracles and wonders which You have performed for our ancestors, in those days at this time, through Your holy priests. Throughout the eight days of Chanukah, these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make use of them, but only to look at them, in order to offer thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, for Your wonders and for Your saving acts.

 

Eight Other Readings about Light and Mitzvot

 

“We live in a dark time. In a world ravaged by war, prejudice, disease, and now, an economic crisis that will put hundreds of thousands of people at risk of suffering. We need to bring more light. And to bring the light, we need to become the Maccabees- a people of faith who believed that liberty is worth fighting for, that human dignity is worth fighting for, and that justice is worth fighting for.” (Rabbi Sid Schwarz)

 

 

“If you offer your compassion to the hungry and you feed the famished creatures, then your light will shine in the darkness and your gloom will be like noonday” Isaiah 58:10

 

“When you think about someone or something that inspires you, the expression with the word נֵר would be Ner Le-Raglav- נֵר לְרַגְּלָיו. Literally, the expression means “a candle by his leg” but the contextual English translation for this expression would be “guideline” or “guiding principle.” I would add to this the meaning of “someone that you can follow”,  as it appears in Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.” “נֵר-לְרַגְלִי דְבָרֶךָ; וְאוֹר לִנְתִיבָתִי.”

 

“According to the Created Worlds and Destroyed Worlds interpretation of the Bible, the passage in Genesis follows a major destruction of the world previous to our own. The light mentioned in Genesis 1:3 was a supernatural light that had the power to repair elements of the previously destroyed world. Day one of creation records the day when this supernatural light of repair was introduced into our current world. Day two records the start of the repair of the atmosphere and water. Day three describes the completion of the repair of the atmosphere and water and the repair of plant life. Day four describes the repair of the Earth’s relationship to the Sun, Moon, and stars. Day five describes the repair of marine life and winged creatures. Day six describes the repair of land animals and man.

 

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)

 

But the path of the righteous is as the light of dawn, that shines more and more unto the perfect day. (Proverbs 4.18)

 

“The Holy One said to Israel “My children, since My light is your light and your light is My light, let us, you and I go and give light to Zion. Arise, give light, for your light has come (Isaiah 60:1)” (Pesikta de Rav Kahana 21:1)

 

Parashat Bo: Darkness and Light

The final three plagues that occur in this week’s sidra, appear on first reading to be difficult to categorise until we see a thread that connects them – that of darkness itself. The swarm of locusts cut out any light from the sun, forming a thick cloud of living destruction. The bible tells us “they cover the eye of the land so that no one can see it”. The three days of darkness of the ninth plague meant that the Egyptians could not see each other or to move around at all – “they could not get up from where they were”. And the last terrible plague, that of the killing of all the first-born, took place at midnight.

What is the nature of darkness that links these events?

The ninth plague of darkness lasted for three days, imprisoning the Egyptians in their homes and completely isolated from each other. The Egyptians had refused to allow the Israelites three days of freedom to journey into the wilderness to worship God (Exodus 5:3) were now being given a sort of measure for measure punishment. The darkness is so thick as to be tangible, a suffocating total absence of possibility; no connection, no sense of self or other, can be experienced within it.

Darkness seems to be a metaphor for slavery, for whatever is the opposite of freedom to be. It is the metaphor for isolation, for fear and complete helplessness. The first thing that God does at the Creation is to bring about Light, separating it from the primordial swirling atmosphere. Without light nothing else would be possible.

The Midrash, commenting on the first verse of psalm 22, which reads: “To the chief musician: upon the rising of the morning star, a psalm of David: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? [Why are You] so far from saving me, from the words of my roar?”
tells us that it is darkest immediately before the dawn:

“At night, though it be night, one has the light of the moon, the stars, the planets. Then when is it really dark? Just before dawn! After the moon sets and the stars set and the planets vanish, there is no darkness deeper than the hour before dawn. And in that hour the Holy One answers the world and all that are in it: out of the darkness God brings forth the dawn and gives light to the world.” (Midrash Tehillim)

It goes on to play with the words ‘shachar’ meaning ‘dawn’, and ‘shachor’ meaning ‘blackness’. The worst state to be in, spiritually and emotionally, is in the place of deepest darkness, yet it is also the place from which God responds to us, and from which we can begin again.

All of us have times when we feel the lack of freedom to be, when we are isolated from others or anxious or hopeless or depressed. We all understand the words of the psalm, when we feel forsaken and drowned out by the roaring in our minds. This is never a good feeling nor one we want to stay in for any length of time, but it is part of the human experience and something we can use on our journey to understand ourselves and our lives.

It took the darkness – the three different kinds of it – to bring Pharaoh to an understanding of the power of God. It takes the darkness in our own lives to really help us understand how good so much of our lives actually is.

Rabbi Milton Steinberg, in his essay  “To Hold With Open Arms” wrote:
“After a long illness I was permitted for the first time to step out of doors. And as I crossed the threshold, sunlight greeted me. This is my experience; all there is to it. And yet, so long as I live, I shall never forget that moment…The sky overhead was very blue, very clear, and very, very high. A faint wind blew from off the western plains, cool and yet somehow tinged with warmth – like a dry, chilled wine. And everywhere in the firmament above me, in the great vault between earth and sky, on the pavements, the building- the golden glow of sunlight.
It touched me too, with friendship, with warmth, with blessing. And as I basked in its glory, there ran through my mind those wonder words of the prophet about the sun which some day shall rise with healing on its wings.
In that instant I looked about me to see whether anyone else showed on his face the joy, almost the beatitude I felt. But no, there they walked – men and women and children in the glory of a golden flood, and so far as I could detect, there was none to give it heed,. And then I remembered how often I, too had been indifferent to sunlight, how often, preoccupied with petty and sometimes mean concerns, I had disregarded it, and I said to myself, how precious is the sunlight, but alas how careless of it are we. How precious- how careless. This has been the refrain sounding in me ever since.”

Darkness and light. We need each of them to understand the other. And with an awareness of both, we are able to reach out towards a deeper understanding of our place in the world.

Chanukah Miracles

Chanukah is one of the most historically documented of all the Jewish holidays – we have early sources for it in the books of the Maccabees, and in the works of Josephus. We have accounts in the Talmud and in other rabbinic literature. Every Jew knows the story – that Antiochus Epiphanes forced all the people under his rule to take up Hellenistic practices, that the worship of Greek gods and the sacrifice of unclean animals replaced the traditional worship in the Temple, that Shabbat and circumcision were outlawed. And while some Jews were eager to take on Hellenism, with its pantheon of gods, and its emphasis on the beauty and strength of the human body, others resisted, and died as martyrs.

Then one day the Greeks came to the village of Modi’in and set up an altar there, commanding the Jews to show obedience to Antiochus’ decree.  Mattathias an old priest was so enraged when he saw a Jew about to follow the instructions that he killed him, and then he and his 5 sons retreated to the mountains and began a guerrilla war against the Greeks and their Jewish allies. Before he died Mattathias passed on the leadership to his son Judah, who led the forces against a series of Antiochus’ armies, and defeated them all. When he and his followers liberated Jerusalem and reclaimed the Temple from its defilement, they could only find one small cruse of oil, enough to last just one day, yet when they lit the Temple menorah with it a miracle occurred and the light burned for 8 days.  Since then we celebrate Chanukah in order to remember the Maccabees and their successful fight for religious independence, and we retell the miracle of the oil, we light the chanukiah and we eat foods cooked with oil.

That is the story, everyone knows it, yet strangely enough in none of the many early accounts we have of Chanukah do we find the story quite like this.   

Some accounts focus on the facts of war. Other stories place at their centre the personality of individual members of the Hasmonean family; or the terrible persecution suffered under Antiochus; or the willing assimilation by many which almost wrote the Jews out of history.  Other texts talk about cleansing and rededication of the Temple in order for it to be used for Jewish worship once more. 

Different aspects of the story of the Maccabean rebellion have been highlighted at different times. So the rabbis living in Mishnaic times may have felt obliged to mute the story of a successful revolt by a small number of Jews against a powerful enemy; and those of Talmudic times may well have needed the extra emphasis on the Temple rededication, and the reassurance of the presence of God in the world that the story of the miracle would bring.  The issue of religious martyrdom was important in medieval times when the community was decimated in the crusades – and so on. 

            The festival of Chanukah has continued to develop and we continue to tell the story in our particular way.  Every generation engages with the story, infuses the ritual with contemporary meaning, uses the story and the eight days of candlelighting to express something we feel deeply about. Every generation looks at the story of Chanukah, adding their own light and shadow in order to express that which is important to their time. 

A modern response has been to use the festival as an antidote to external cultural influences, to make it, as it were, the Jewish Christmas, with the giving of presents and the eating of rich (and oily) foods. Sadly Chanukah has become a festival our children know more about than the more core biblical ones of Sukkot and Shavuot.  I have no problem with raising the status of Chanukah to combat the alienation caused by the feeling that the whole world is having a party to which we are not invited (and nor should we be, or we risk devaluing the importance and particularity of Christmas), but it does worry me that Chanukah has become a sort of catch all festivity during the dark winter months, and all meaning is overshadowed by celebration.  For Chanukah does have a message for us, and is not simply a convenient peg to enable us to have our own party, Chanukah is all about – indeed the word has the basic meaning of – dedication and renewal. 

            If we parallel the original story of Chanukah in which people moved away from the core values of Jewish tradition and its place of expression, in favour of the values of a world which did not give a worth to the imperatives of increasing holiness through ethical and righteous behaviour, then this is the time of year we should be rededicating and renewing our own Jewish identity – going, as it were, into the sanctuary of our own souls and taking stock of where we are three months after the last stock take of Yom Kippur. Do we need to refocus, to relight our desire to be better than we are being, to rededicate ourselves to our partnership in the work of God?

            Chanukah, often called “Festival of Lights” is more properly a “Festival of Rights” – celebrating the determined fight of a tiny group of people for the basic human right to religious identity, spiritual autonomy and right to define one’s self.

Mattathias and his sons fought a battle whose principle continues to be fought around the world. And this principle is at the core of the Chanukah story. There continue to be refugees fleeing from their countries – from wars which have nothing to do with them, from persecution over their gender, religion, nationality, sexuality, existence….

            The rabbis asked –  “if there was only enough oil for one day, and it stayed alight for 8 days while new oil was being prepared, it is easy to understand the miracle of the last 7 days, but what was the miracle on the first day?”  

They provide a number of possible answers, but for me the one that resonates is that the miracle of the first day was that people still cared enough and believed enough to light the menorah at all, when they knew that realistically it should go out again within a few hours and they would find themselves in deep darkness again. The miracle of Chanukah isn’t some supernatural extension of the burning properties of oil, but that very ordinary human beings lit the oil in the first place, determined to create light even if only in their own locality, even if only for a short time. It would have been so easy to have not bothered, to have said it would make no difference, to have given up.

Miracles are not really about heavenly interventions or supernatural experiences, but ordinary everyday things which we create and experience every time we choose to dedicate ourselves to the values we say we believe in, when we remind ourselves that we are one human race, when we recognise that what binds us is of more importance than what separates us. Miracles happen when people don’t give in to despair or lethargy, or the belief that they can’t make a difference anyway so they shouldn’t even try.

Chanukah is a festival of dedicating ourselves, of learning about ourselves and what we could be capable of, of reminding ourselves that our actions should match our words. As we light our candles and eat our doughnuts and spin our dreidls, let’s give some thought to how our own lives might provide light – even just a small glow – and make our bit of the world a kinder place.