A Good Spark (Bulletin Message for Chanukkah 2014/5775)

2014 was tough. We saw war break out in the Jewish State. Statistics say that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe. Statisticians have written about how the dwindling population of religiously engaged Jews. By the onset of September, autumn trickled in, and a premature winter came onto the scene not too long thereafter.

Chanukkah, meaning “Dedication,” is in fact historically a time for rededication. According to the book II Maccabees (a Jewish book that didn’t make it into our Hebrew Bible), Chanukkah was not only a rededication of Jerusalem’s then-recently defiled Temple, but it was a late Sukkot—several months after when Sukkot should have been observed but could not have been observed (1:9, 1:18 and 10:5-6). Chanukkah, wintry as it is, was a do-over of the crop-gathering festival—and, at the first Chanukkah, there may have been no crops left to gather!

So, what’s that miracle of Chanukkah? We might remember the story of how, when the Jews finally regained access to their Holy Temple in Jerusalem, they found a jug with just enough oil to last them one night of light in the Temple, and the light lasted eight days. Historically, that Talmudic story (b Shabbat 21b) has been passed down, with slight variations: Upon regaining access to the Temple, the Jews found a jug that did not have enough oil to permit even 24 hours of light in the Temple (She’il’ta DeRav Achai DeShabbacha, Vayyishlach 26). However little oil there was, eight days of light far exceeded the expectations of our people—predictions based on well-informed calculations (how much oil is needed per candle, how much oil is in the vicinity, etc.). The 19th Century Rabbi Isaac Me’ir of Gur saw this myth as a parable promising that the Holy Blessed One would forever hold for the people Israel a space of sacred security in the universe (Chiddushey HaRim on Chanukkah).

The truth is that, in the night sky in even the busiest city on the cloudiest day, we can usually see glimmers of starlight. Similarly, in times of overwhelming bad news, there is always good news to be read. At the onset of the Jewish new year of 5775, the Israeli government began its efforts in earnest with The Sabbatical Year Project—an initiative to relieve debts of Israelis in need. 2014 also is the proud parent of the first moment in history when a group of women prayed out loud together at the Western Wall while reading from a physical, kosher Torah scroll. And just to mention one more happy slice of current events: The Jewish State continues to produce bright and innovative scientists, leading the world in changing the way we think about solar power, the way we treat Parkinson’s Disease, and the way that we can produce more food to help feed the hungry in places of malnutrition.

If we feel that life has been tough this year, we might have to look a little more carefully and remind ourselves that sometimes the moments when we want to gather the good will come later than we hoped. Second, in a world that seems completely out of our hands, not unlike our ancestral Maccabees who lost their temple and sanctuary, we must never forget any small glimpses of good and sacred light that we can kindle and that we can find.

When we light this year, let’s reflect on how quickly a flame grows. As a match brushes against a matchbox, a match that we could hold at either end just a moment ago has suddenly become too hot to handle—from no flame to full flame. As the little flame at the end of our match touches the wick of a candle, our candle is instantly crowned with a flame far larger than the fire burning at the end of our small match.

If the winter ever makes our hope dwindle, let us let this season’s candles remind us: We will never fully fathom exactly how a good spark catches on.

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