Ben’s mother Susan might have retreated from the world in her grief. Instead, she and another 9/11 widow founded BeyondThe11th, a nonprofit group that works with widows in Afghanistan whose lives have been devastated by war and terrorism. Talk about shining one’s light to the whole world! Despite their loss, the Retik family has made the planet a better and safer place through their charitable work in helping widows half a world away rebuild their families’ lives.
Hanukkah: From Darkness to Light
A Chasidic story is told of a man entering a dark room. He is overwhelmed by the darkness.
“Don’t worry,” said his friend. “The darkness hits only at first. Soon your eyes will grow accustomed to it, and you will hardly notice the dark.”
“My friend,” replied the man, “that is our problem. Judaism teaches us to distinguish between lightness and darkness. But unfortunately, by becoming too accustomed to the situation, we begin to think of the darkness as light!”
Distinguishing between lightness and darkness is so much a part of who we are as the Jewish people. Each Saturday night, we bid farewell to Shabbat by distinguishing between lightness and darkness. But we make other distinctions as well. We acknowledge the separation between holy and secular, and between the six regular days of the week and the holiness of the Sabbath. We also proclaim that God has separated the Jewish people from all other peoples. For we have been chosen by God to be a holy people.
But what does this “chosenness” really mean? After all, it might even make some of us feel uncomfortable being the “chosen people” around our non-Jewish friends, colleagues, and neighbors. I’m reminded of the famous scene from Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye calls out to God: “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”
Jewish people shouldn’t feel uneasy or uncomfortable with the notion that we are chosen. After all, it’s not about superiority or status, but rather responsibility. Jewish people have the responsibility to seek out justice in the world. We have to help repair our fractured world. The man in the Chasidic story wasn’t comforted by the fact that his eyes would eventually adjust to the dark—and he was on to something. It is our responsibility, as individuals and as a community, to see the darkness in the world and to create light.
This is what it means to be a people chosen by God. And this, I strongly believe, is the message of Hanukkah. Each night, we commemorate the miracle by increasing the light in this dark world. The rabbis of the Talmud taught that we increase the holiness; we don’t diminish it. Each night of Hanukkah, we increase the holiness in the world—and that is why God holds the Jewish people accountable. Why God has chosen us to be God’s people—responsible stewards of the earth, partners in fixing a broken world, and pursuers of shalom (peace) and tzedek (justice).
Jewish people have the responsibility to bring light to humanity through social justice. As a light unto the nations, we are obligated to think of ourselves and our actions as an example for the entire human race, outside of our own community. We must live our lives according to the words of God as articulated in our holy Torah: I the Lord have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand, and will protect you, and make for you a covenant, to be a light unto the nations.
To be a “light unto the nations” means that when there is darkness in our world, we must be the guiding light, the symbol of leadership, the beacon of hope, and the impetus for change. We must lead the way out of the darkness and into the light. We do this by realizing that our efforts at both justice and righteousness must extend beyond our own people.
SPEAKING OUT; REACHING OUT
As Jews, we have an increased moral obligation to respond, to speak out, and to take action against ethnic cleansing regardless of the ethnicity, race or religion of the people being victimized. We have experienced horrific darkness, but we have always persevered and found the light. If “Never Again” is to be our watchword, reminding us of our persecution, then we must remain true to it. We must live up to that phrase, and when we see darkness engulfing other humans, we must not stand idly by and be passive. We must act.
My teacher, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches the following about Hanukkah: “Pessimists and assimilationists have more than once informed Jews that there is no more oil left to burn. As long as Hanukkah is studied and remembered, Jews will not surrender to the night. The proper response, as Hanukkah teaches, is not to curse the darkness but to light a candle.” If all peoples light a candle, our world will be a much brighter place for all of us.