Dec. 10, 2020
By ERIC VERNON
Like most holidays on the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah is never on time. This year, for instance, it is “early,” but even coming in the second week of December, we can still use the light. This may be especially true in the dark year of 2020, when, ironically, our vision was supposed to be perfect.
Light and flame are prominent images in Jewish scripture and texts, and the symbol of the menorah resonates throughout our collective history. Candles, of course, feature prominently in Jewish festive celebrations. We welcome Shabbat with candles every Friday night, and bid it goodbye with the braided candle of Havdalah. We bid goodbye to our loved ones with candles at shiva and yahrzeit.
The Chassidic masters taught: “You cannot dispel darkness with a stick, you must light a candle.” It’s also been aptly noted that the benefit of the candle is twofold: It brings light to the person who lit it, while helping someone nearby, without diminishing its light. A candle loses nothing even by lighting another candle.
Lighting candles at Hanukkah has a special appeal, likely vying with conducting a Passover Seder as the most popular holiday activity of the Jewish annual cycle.
The Talmud tells of competing schools of thought regarding the lighting of candles at Hanukkah. One school, seeking to mirror the diminishing light of the legendary oil cruse after a week and a day, suggested starting with eight candles and removing one each day. The other school countered that the true miracle of Hanukkah lay in adding light to the world and advocated beginning with one candle and ending with eight.
We know how this debate concluded. We are imbued with the wonderful symbolism of the lighting of successive candles on this joyous festival, and our thoughts often turn at this time to how we, in our own lives, can add light to the world.
You often hear people speak of “light at the end of the tunnel” as the optimistic metaphoric end of a long process or a difficult time they are experiencing. Sadly, we need not strain ourselves to come up with a perfect example these past few months. At these times of uncertainty or frustration, especially when we’re not sure that the light in the tunnel isn’t an oncoming train, we can be buoyed by the hopeful message of the following passage:
“Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that. Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a Creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The concept of the arc of the moral universe being long but bending toward justice actually derives from a sermon titled, “Of Justice and the Conscience,” published in 1857 by a transcendentalist and Unitarian minister in the United States named Theodore Parker. But you will likely not be surprised to learn that the quote above is from a speech delivered by Martin Luther King Jr., in August 1967.
King loved the image of the bending arc of morality seeking justice. In fact, he used it in several speeches from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s as the civil rights movement in the U.S. moved through its tumultuous and, despite King’s signature approach, often violent, bloody and lethal early period. In August 1967, the movement that had witnessed the marches in Selma and Montgomery; the murders of Freedom Riders James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner; and the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers had just come through the “long, hot summer” of widespread rioting in cities across America.
And not knowing that in just a matter of mere months, his own name would be added to the list of those cut down for the cause, King could have rightly looked around and considered the slow, sometimes infinitesimal gains made for racial equality and wondered if there would ever come a time when American society would judge people, as he famously said, not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.
And yet, in spite of the glacial pace of the civil rights movement, King remained optimistic, sustained in his firm belief that morality and justice would one day intersect and American society would finally experience the necessary transformative social change for true racial equality. Sadly, the events of this past summer demonstrated just how much that noble goal remains aspirational and not fully realized.
And yet, as Jews, we understand King’s optimism intuitively. That we have survived and flourished over millennia is all the more remarkable given the litany of hate, persecution and attempted annihilation we have faced throughout time, all because of who we are.
We think about this especially at Hanukkah. As discouraging as the manifestations of both historical and contemporary antisemitism may be, the candles’ light in this season braces and inspires us to resist oppression, fight for human rights for all and proudly assert our identity.
So as you load up your hanukkiyah and set flame to wick, you will of course be celebrating the stunning victory of the Maccabees for religious freedom and our right to live as Jews.
You will of course be commemorating the redemption of the Temple and the astounding miracle of the burning oil.
But more than that, as you light the bright festive candles of Hanukkah, you will be illuminating the arc of the moral universe and guiding it as it bends its way toward justice.
Eric Vernon is the former Director of Government Relations and International Affairs of Canadian Jewish Congress.