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My Chanukah Epiphany

Thursday, 29 December, 2005 - 12:00 pm

The following article appeared in the Idaho Statesman on December 25, 2005.

Click here to access the article at The Idaho Statesman online.

In the days ahead, you may observe your Jewish neighbor’s front window aglow with flickering flames. You may also notice large menorahs (eight-branched candelabras) standing tall in public thoroughfares – joining tens of thousands of such displays from Bangkok to Boise.

This is all a central part of the observance of Chanukah, a festival dating back some 2,100 years when a small Jewish army triumphed over the powerful and oppressive Assyrians, establishing a celebration of religious freedom for the ages.

Contrary to popular perception, these displays are not for the purpose of securing “equal time” with Christmas. While both provide holiday cheer, the proximity of the two holidays is purely coincidental. In fact, while it does happen this year, the dates of Chanukah and Christmas do not always coincide.

Jewish tradition teaches us not to proselytize. It posits very strongly that there are many pathways through which human beings can attain closeness to the Almighty. Indeed, as Jews, we celebrate that very diversity.

Why then does the Talmud call upon Jews to celebrate the miracles of Chanukah in public fashion by necessarily placing the menorah in places of high visibility?

Perhaps it is because these lights clearly do not represent the imposition of one person’s faith upon another. Quite the contrary, they embody the very fullness of religious expression. They radiate the universal ideals of hope over despair; freedom over tyranny; right over might.

My Chanukah epiphany came one November day in Africa.

It was 2002. I was asked to help organize a Chanukah celebration for the Jewish communities in Kenya. The day I arrived, a fateful homicide attack struck the Mombasa Paradise Hotel – the site of our scheduled event – leaving fifteen dead and scores injured. The festivities we had planned were replaced by mourning and agony.  Search and rescue, medical care, and trauma-counseling became the call of the hour.

Several nights later, we held a large Chanukah gathering. There I stood under the African sky wondering where we go from here. The sense of gloom was thick and palpable; the wounds still open and bleeding; the horrors of what we had witnessed all too fresh.

A young girl then stood up and lit a menorah. All of the participants followed suit. A sea of flames lit up the night. There was not a dry eye around. Suddenly, someone in the crowd started up a Chanukah tune, and we all joined in. Never have I heard a melody stir the soul so deeply.

It was then that it dawned on me.                                             

On Chanukah, we kindle menorahs – beginning with one light on the first night – adding another each of the subsequent eight nights. This, in commemoration of how the Jews of old discovered one flask of pure oil with which to kindle the Temple Menorah – enough to burn a single day. This single cruse miraculously burned for eight days, until new oil was procured.

Even in the wake of great darkness and despair, there is always that remaining flask of goodness and purity from which we can build and kindle anew. Flame by flame, deed by deed, day by day – we can always restore light to our surroundings.

This is true in the macro of nations as well as the micro of our individual lives. We never give up hope. Light increases and darkness recedes.

The next time you see a menorah, listen carefully to the story of its flames. It is the story of freedom; the story of the prevailing goodness of man. It is your story as much as it is mine.

Oh, and yes, there will be a Chanukah celebration in Mombasa this year.

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