Okay, I admit it. It is one of my least favorite songs, and by far my least favorite Hanukkah song in a world sorely lacking good Hanukkah songs. Please don’t take my dislike personally if Peter, Paul and Mary’s lyrics happen to be among your favorites. That being said, there is something to this idea of “lighting one candle,” especially considering the Talmudic debate surrounding the procedure for lighting the lights of the holiday. While we often quote the opinions of Beit Hillel (one candle on the first night, ascending to eight on the last) and Beit Shammai (eight candles on the first night descending to one on the last), we rarely reference the fact that the average person was expected to light only one light for the household each night (Shabbat 21b).
I actually love this idea of lighting one candle. After all, when the Maccabees lit the Temple’s menorah, they had no way of knowing how many days the oil would last, if it would even last a day. But they rekindled it anyway. It didn’t matter to them how many days the oil would last! Hanukkah could have been three, five or seven days and it wouldn’t have mattered. Their goal wasn’t eight. All that mattered was that they displayed the courage to kindle the lamp for one more day. That act of defiance, resilience and hope—to push back against the darkness one more day with no guarantee that the light would be burning on the day after—is the true miracle of the holiday for me, epitomizing the Jewish spirit throughout time.
Today, the day after the Hanukkah lights have gone out for this year, is the winter solstice. The Northern Hemisphere is tilted farthest away from the sun, resulting in the shortest “day”—and longest night—of the year. From where will the light come to push against the darkness? Hopefully, we’ve been storing up on the oil necessary to kindle a lamp, if only for a day. As a big Star Wars fan, I will share with you (spoiler alert?) that one of the things I love most about this movie is the message it sends about the responsibility that each of us bears to serve as a shamash for one day, for one other person.
While ruminating on my disdain (a little too harsh?) for Peter, Paul and Mary’s song, I came across another set of lyrics by Ronnie Spector (lead singer of the Ronettes) for another song with the same title:
Make the sun rise tomorrow with your faith in today
You can soften a sorrow if you just light the way
All it takes is a candle to turn darkness to light
Like the promise of the dawn
On a long winter’s night.
Figures, she wrote it as a Christmas song.
Happy solstice, and may all your winter days be bright,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Like you, I cannot count the number of emails and posts I have received regarding the confluence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah this year. Before I delete them all from my in-box or my attention, I want to consider the importance of this week for us as Jews, Americans, and members (or friends) of an amazing synagogue in Rockland County, New York.
GRATITUDE: Two holidays falling together on one day helped me ponder the gratitude I feel about being an American who is free to be an observant Jew. In our family, we take turns around a table filled with three generations, sharing what we are thankful for. This year, we then turned to a chanukiyah sculpted by my father-in-law and chanted the blessings of the holiday. We had too much to eat, laughed at family stories told year after year and held quiet conversations to catch up with family members who live far away. We are blessed and recognized it with thankfulness.
LIGHT: The rabbis taught that the soul is God’s candle. When we kindle the lights with the shamash each night, it is clear to see the wisdom in this teaching. The flame is not diminished in the least as it touches the wicks of each night’s candle, causing each one to light. So too with us. When we share the light of our unique souls, we are not diminished in the least. Rather, we spread light to others.
MIRACLES: This past Shabbat, Rabbi Scheff spoke about the requirement of human initiative to bring about miracles large and small in our day. Consider the fact that Mitzvah Day has turned into Mitzvah-Week-and-a-Half and we can see how many congregants have taken the steps to bring about moments that should not be taken for granted.
Mitzvah-Week-and-a-Half began on Sunday, November 17 when a dozen congregants joined Rabbi Scheff in Israel for the annual Orangetown Jewish Center Mitzvah Mission. Members of the group carried with them cozy hats knit by our congregants for children in Kfar Ahava, our beloved residential program for children who must be removed from abusive or neglectful homes. Watches were wrapped with gift cards created by our sixth grade Religious School students as b’nai mitzvah gifts for the children. Teenager Tamar Weinger (traveling with her dad) brought rainbow looms with her and taught the children how to make the bracelets that are all the rage. Members of the Mission spent important time at the residence, renewing bonds, assisting children in a mitzvah project of their own, and celebrating the milestones of Kfar Ahava. They also volunteered with Leket Yisrael and toured a handicap-accessible nature path in the north. I hope that you read all about the adventures and miracles created by our fellow congregants in Rabbi Scheff’s daily letters from Israel.
Like all important Jewish days, Mitzvah Day began at sundown of the day before. Young children and their grownups gathered with Rabbi Ami and Loni Hersh and their boys for Havdalah and a movie. While the kids were engrossed in the movie, the adults created blankets for hospitals and nursing homes.
At the same time, our Ruach group (grades four and five) led by April Kupferman met to bake for the homeless.
Mitzvah Day, November 24, was an example of the OJC at its very best. A dozen congregants were trained in CPR at the Orangetown Ambulance Corps while one hundred congregants donated blood.
After a breakfast and presentation about Leket Yisrael, congregants participated in a variety of activities in the synagogue as well as at a local nursing home, the Hi Tor Animal Shelter and the Salmon House, one of the Jawonio Group Homes for adults with disabilities. In each gesture and interaction, our congregants were empowered to know that they can change the world. We can argue over the definition of “miracle” — but to me, the day was miraculous.
Kol hakavod to Lorraine Brown and Carolyn Wodar and their amazing team of volunteers for creating a meaningful, successful day.
We didn’t stop there! Tuesday evening, November 26 was the OJC’s first hosting for Helping Hands of this new season. For eight years, we have participated in this important interfaith Rockland County initiative that provides warm, dry places to sleep and hot meals to people who are homeless in our neighborhood. OJC takes it to a different level under the enthusiastic guidance of Gabi Lewy, Geof Cantor, Jack Teadore, Susan Edelstein and Bruce Machlis who gather a large crew of volunteers to shop, set up, cook, greet and stay overnight (thank you Bruce and Liza Machlis!). Helping Hands guests at the OJC experience gourmet meals, donated warm clothing, and the respectful friendship of a crew of teens who participate year after year.
Opportunities for your own miracle making abound at the OJC! Contact Adele Garber or Maddy Roimisher to find out how you can give your time and energy to the Chesed Committee. Maybe next year, when Thanksgiving and Chanukah no longer coincide, I’ll be writing about Mitzvah Year instead of Mitzvah-Week-and-a-Half!
Join us on Tuesday, December 3 from 6:30 to 7:30 pm as we light Chanukah candles together as our amazing OJC community celebrates our countless miracles!
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill