December 14, 2018

Celebrating Light and Hope in Our Time of Darkness

The last five weeks have pummeled us with horrific experiences of hate-filled violence, darkness of the soul and death. With our country already riven by bitter and hostile social and political differences, the shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue and a Thousand Oaks bar inflicted pain, outrage and darkness upon countless persons. Then, the Camp and Woolsey fires took dozens of lives (with hundreds still unaccounted for), destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes and devastated community institutions. 

As we continue to sift through the physical and emotional rubble, and try to assess the financial and psychological damage, suddenly Hanukkah is upon us — a time to connect with family and friends in our homes in celebration of a storied miracle in which a flame burned longer than it was expected to. The dissonance is stark: Many among us have no homes to go to. Families have been fractured. Scores of people have lost everything to fires that could not be contained.

How do we celebrate the rededication of the Temple destroyed long ago, when we and our families, friends and neighbors are reeling from these urgent crises?

In the wake of the devastating fires, can we connect with the Festival of Lights and its images of a reconstructive flame? Is it possible to look at the light of the menorah and see illumination instead of destruction? 

The Journal posed these questions to local rabbis and leaders — some of whom are on the front lines of caring for victims — to help us understand. 

Fires of Destruction and Lights of Hope
Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Rabbi Julia Weisz, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas

This Hanukkah, Congregation Or Ami rededicates the temple, literally reconsecrating our Calabasas sanctuary during our first Shabbat since evacuating the synagogue during the fires. Through the Maccabean efforts of our Fire Remediation Task Force and our crisis manager, Joffe Emergency Services, the temple is (again) professionally cleansed. As we light our hanukkiah, ancient past and devastating present blend together.

By lighting eight candles that differentiate between fires of destruction and miraculous lights of hope, we:

1. Remember that we were targets, condemned equally by an evil king long ago and an enraged murderous shooter a few weeks ago, who hated that we seemed different and sought to erase our uniqueness from the polity.

2. Caution that angry sparks, set intentionally or not, quickly and easily burn out of control, creating targets among the innocent.

3. Seek to extinguish flames of hatred that burn to harm others.  

4. Encourage wide-eyed awareness and intentional responses to the statements, policies and actions that fan the flames of hatred and/or neglect to lock down weapons of destruction.

5. Retell the story of courageous Maccabean first-responders: firefighters, police and countless volunteers who faced flames or braved bullets to save countless people and properties.

6. Celebrate the vast communal response forged in the fires, and our role as one shamash within, that kindled deep partnership to shine light for the common good.

7. Sing praise that Nes Gadol Haya Sham … v’Poh (a great miracle happened there … and here), reflecting the blessings of the Holy One, who works through decidedly human but nevertheless holy people.

8. Rededicate our synagogue home as a center of learning and holy activism, committed to repairing our broken world. 

Becoming Part of the Rededication Miracle
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Am, Pico-Robertson

The much-beloved teaching by Rabbi David Hartman about what, indeed, was the miracle on the first night of Hanukkah, such that the holiday is eight days rather than seven (after all, the first day they did have enough oil, so what was ostensibly miraculous?), speaks directly and poignantly to this moment.  

To have hope, to begin to illuminate crushing darkness when there is no guarantee of what tomorrow brings, is the epitome of human resilience. It is what is called upon in moments of tragedy, whether personal, local, national or global. The conquering heroes lit that first night, rather than submit to understandable disconsolation. That was a miracle too — of heart, not of oil. In Rabbi Hartman’s words, inspired by our ancestors, we “ought to pour infinite yearnings even into small vessels.” 

In the Maccabean era, the fires of destruction came not only from the flames of enemies, but also from the burning civil discord in the face of incalculable emergency. Today, individuals and communities in our midst face devastating darkness. Let our generosity — of time, spirit and financial resources — be their first candle. Let our togetherness deter rancorous and divisive blame-games. Let us be part of their miracle of rededication. 

Reclaiming Shammai, Reducing the Flames
Rabbi Lori Shapiro, The Open Temple, Venice

The story of Hanukkah is a literary tale formed over several millennia, its origins spinning through the Book of Maccabees I and II, through Josephus, the Talmud, Maimonides and beyond. It’s a literary time machine. And if each evolving civilization imprints its own addition to this tale, might we look around at our times and ask, “What is our contemporary contribution to the telling?” Perhaps this year nothing is more important to illuminate than the Spirit of Machloket (disagreement), as most famously demonstrated in the mental sparring of Hillel and Shammai, the rabbis of the Talmud who respectfully preserved the minority opinion in matters of dissent.  

According to the house of Hillel, we begin with one light and increase the light each day until we have all eight illuminated. What if, this year, all of us reclaim the Shammai hanukkiah, in addition to our beloved Hillel hanukkiah (Shabbat Bavli, 21b)? Perhaps we should begin with a blaze, akin to the great fires in our city, state and nation, and reduce the flame for eight nights as a symbol of our humility, unity and oneness?  

This Hanukkah, The Open Temple shares this tradition at our annual “Hanukkah on the Canal Parade,” and we dedicate ourselves to the search for light in times of darkness. We hearken to the sounds of strangers and invite the Other into our hearts and homes as an eight-night meditation of reduced light to guide our return, until a singular candle, representing all of us, together and alone, becomes our sole companion. A singular light, reminiscent of the mystery and promise of creation. 

In the Darkness, Create Light
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, Associate Dean, American Jewish University, Bel Air

In a remarkable demonstration of courage, the Maccabees rededicated the Temple, pouring faith into kindling light from one small flask of oil. We light candles counting upward, each night adding one more candle. The more light, says the Talmud, the more holiness.  

At a time of darkness and challenge, our response is to increase the light. Unlike any other time of year, during Hanukkah the lights are for the sole purpose of witnessing the shining brightness, finding in it the inspiration to create more light.

Lighting the Hanukkah candles invites us to take time to see our own soul’s light. In so doing, we are reminded that deep within us we hold the truly miraculous weapons of hope and faith that we can use to fight darkness, evil and pain.  

The Book of Proverbs says it best: “The light of God is the human soul.” It is this light that guides us to illuminate the darkest paths and leads us to kindle additional light deep in the holy souls of other people. 

Don’t Cancel Holidays: Celebrate the Will to Rebuild
Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Ohr HaTorah Synagogue, Mar Vista

Some of the people who frequent our synagogue were forced to evacuate their homes and/or lost their homes entirely in the recent Woolsey Fire. There may also be someone in our midst who is grieving a loved one lost in the Camp Fire’s destruction of the town of Paradise, the Borderline Bar & Grill shooting in Thousand Oaks or the Tree of Life synagogue attack in Pittsburgh.

Everyone is shaken. The news cycle brings the catastrophes home to each of us. As a religious and spiritual community, we have to acknowledge the pain and trauma and guide people through it — how to grieve and how to console.  

But we don’t cancel holidays or turn them into rites of mourning. Some who have suffered grievous loss can have their spirits lifted by the wisdom, beauty and joy in our holidays. Perhaps for a brief time, they will want to be at one with the community and the tradition. 

It’s a fine line: being present for the grieving, but also trusting that our traditions have enough depth and wisdom for anyone at any time of life. This Hanukkah we are reminded of people who risked everything and many who lost everything. They asked us to celebrate their victory, their moment of rededicating that which had been desecrated. 

We are a tough people, with the vision and will to grieve, restore and rebuild. Let’s celebrate Hanukkah. 

Recognize the Candles in Our Families
Rabbi Nicole Guzik, Sinai Temple, Westwood

I recently read an odd but inspiring answer to the question: “How many candles do we light on Hanukkah?” The Mishneh Torah explains a rare tradition in which you light a candle for each family member, the following night it doubles, triples and so on. By the end of the eighth night, your home is filled with candle after candle, pinpoints of light that pierce the darkness. 

But it’s more than just an aesthetically pleasing sight. It is a plea to each of us that even within our own families, where disagreements and grudges can run high, we must push through our differences to find ways to see each other. There is no perfect family. Extending further, the Jewish nation has been filled with opposing opinions and ideologies for thousands of years. But to do God’s work of diminishing the darkness in this world of shadows, we must recognize the candles within our own family. Candles yearning to be lit. Candles yearning to be seen. 

No matter how much we disagree with those we love, they are family. See them. Perhaps one day, you will need their light.

Working Together, Rising From the Ashes
Jay Sanderson, president & CEO, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

For me, the definitive image of Hanukkah is a menorah radiating in the window of my family’s home. Those flames, burning brightly, symbolize our victory over tyranny and oppression. This past week I drove through the West San Fernando Valley, Conejo Valley and Malibu, parts of our Jewish community ravaged by our recent fires. I saw how flames can cause tremendous destruction and felt many emotions. But what I experienced rising from the ashes was the strength and resilience of our Jewish community. 

As we approach Hanukkah this year, I am deeply inspired. I recognize the long journey we have ahead to rebuild lives, homes and institutions, but I am emboldened by how our Federation staff, lay leaders, communal leaders and rabbis have selflessly stepped forward to do this essential work together.

Eight Bring-Light-to-the-Darkness Kavanot
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, B’nai David-Judea Congregation, Pico-Robertson

The recent man-made and natural calamities have, for me at least, blended into a broader and deeper darkness that has served as their backdrop and soundtrack. This is the darkness produced by the incivility and indecency of our political and social discourse over the past number of years. When we can banish this darkness, we can be realistically optimistic that we can banish any darkness that may come our way. In this spirit, I offer these bring-light-to the-darkness kavanot (intentions) for our eight nights of Hanukkah.

Night 1: Let us speak only truth. Not what “might be” or “could be” or “who knows?” Just truth.

Night 2: Let us not abuse God’s gift of speech by using it to ridicule, mock or demean other human beings.

Night 3: Let us oppose all forms of bias and hatred, not only the ones that suit our politics. 

Night 4: Let us imagine what it would feel like to stand in the shoes of the other, before we espouse a position that impacts that other.

Night 5: Let us take to heart the strict Talmudic prohibition upon affixing nicknames to people.

Night 6: Let us respond to division by trying to heal it, not by exploiting it to our benefit.

Night 7: Let us remember that the only consequence to opening our ears more is that we will understand more.  

Night 8: Let us recommit to the idea that humility is not a weakness to be taken advantage of, but a virtue to be admired.