Little sparks. We Jews are commanded to seek them out everywhere. I found myself at the post office buying some stamps to send out my seasonal Chanukkah greetings. Next to the counter and above a firetruck-colored letterbox for “letters to Santa,” I saw a rack stacking a variety of seasonal greeting cards: for Christmas, Kwanzaa and Chanukkah. As I purchased my Chanukkah-themed stamps, I realize these small gestures put a spring in my step and that they are indeed, points of light, by which we Jews feel “seen.”
It’s been a tough year for the American Jewish community. Deadly shootings in Pittsburgh, Poway and Jersey City as well as other destabilizing acts of anti-Jewish hatred, have made us reevaluate our place in America — practically as well as existentially.
Every synagogue I know of has implemented security upgrades and the emotional response to rising anti-Semitism has ranged from fear to defiance to intercommunal solidarity. Suddenly, a new vocabulary is on our lips. Do we still feel safe to visibly identify as Jewish in America? How can we fight anti-Semitism and every type of bigotry in these febrile times? What does it mean to be the bearers of a great and ethical tradition during times that call for, in the words of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel, “spiritual grandeur and moral audacity?”
The answer to these probing questions can be found in our calling and mission as Jews. It is not for naught that the historical victory of the Maccabees against the Seleucid Hellenists was transmuted into a compelling narrative of a small but tenacious cruse of oil. That oil burned for eight days as the Winter Solstice brought the deepest darkness.
We are called, as in the words of Isaiah, to be “a light unto the nations,” not to emphasize one faith tradition’s moral superiority over another’s (God forbid) but as a lived example that our uniqueness is a gift. A gift to ourselves but also to others, as we demonstrate what it means to live with the dignity of difference. Chanukkah reminds us of how special, wise and remarkable that mission is.
In taxing times, we are not to shy away from the challenges of the hour but to lean into who we are and the values we hold. Rabbinic religious law mandates that we place our menorahs (the nine-armed candelabras we light during the 8-day festival) not in a hidden alcove or behind a closed door, but in our windows, in full and unapologetic view of all who pass by. In fact, we are commanded to do so, and to light our lamps when there are still people on the street, in order to ‘“efarsem ha’nes,” to announce the Chanukkah miracle.
The true miracle is that this story where the vulnerable few defy the crushing power of the many, continues to inspire us even when we see the light fade and the night darken. Despair is not an option; hope an obligation.
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As I took my Chanukkah stamps home and strung up the blue, silver and gold decorations and fairy lights in honor of the season, I know that this message resonates deeply in our souls. We celebrate our difference so that all who are called to heed their authentic voice can do so too. We remind ourselves of the power of moral resistance, of a worldview where we pay homage to minority and diversity and seek to protect it. We bring cheer and light with our candles and the sheer joy of delectable fried foods, lilting song and a story as old as time.
We are proud to be Jewish, to reach across the divide and fight for a vision of our common humanity, not in spite of our unique identity but because of it. And we are fire starters — we seek out the sparks and we kindle them into flame. We bring its warmth and light to a world that craves it so.
Never underestimate the power of a little spark. Wishing you all a season of light, hope and love.
Esther Hugenholtz is the rabbi of the Agudas Achim Congregation in Iowa City.