Winter. The days grow dark. The nights grow long and yet
This is the season of light.
There are many ways to approach the subject of Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday made ubiquitous in America by its proximity to the Christian celebration.
What keeps this holiday going?
Is it the food? The potato pancakes (latkes) or the special doughnuts (sufganiot)?
Is it the presents? The game with a top (dreidl)?
Is it the Hebrew songs like Mao Tzur (“Rock of Ages”)?
In a modern, commercial and consumer-oriented secular culture, how shall we define Hanukkah? My friend, Deborah Silver, a rabbinic student, sent this note:
How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.
— William Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice” V:I
Wishing us all a season full of light
That quote from Shakespeare sums up the core values of Judaism (to do good deeds, to be a light in the world). It is also the core message of Hanukkah.
Yet, it is no small irony that the quote comes from that most troublesome and arguably (unless Shakespeare was being ironic) anti-Semitic play, “The Merchant of Venice.”
Shakespeare wrote the play around 1596, long after the expulsion of all Jews from England and before Cromwell permitted our return. He wrote about Venice at a time when Italian Jews were required, on pain of death, to live in ghettos and to wear large, red hats in public so they could be easily identified.
It is easy to dismiss those events the detritus of remote, uncivilized times, but this year, the season of light began with dark acts of terror — the torture and murder of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg (and hundreds of other innocents) in the most modern of India’s cities — Mumbai.
The intentional targeting of the Holtzbergs is painful. As Rob Eshman, the editor of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, commented, “I didn’t know the Holtzbergs, but I’ve known the kindness and hospitality of so many Chabad emissaries like them.”
There is yet another irony. When the full details of the murders became known, the response of Chabad was not a cry for revenge, but a plea to light candles, “to brighten the profound darkness the world is witnessing ” And now, it is impossible to remember Mumbai without remembering the act of love and courage by the brave Indian woman who rescued little Moshe (“Moses”) Holtzberg, crying for his mother and covered in the blood of his parents.
Light can conquer dark.
Hanukkah, as Chabad reminds us, is a holiday of hope “to a nation, yearning for freedom during history’s harshest times in hidden caves, attics and cellars the comforting answer to the girl in Communist Russia who wondered, will the Menorah ever shine in my life ”
Or, as Rabbi-in-training Deborah Silver reminded me, one small candle casts its light in a thousand ways.
Hanukkah is a celebration of light.La Cañada Valley Sun: La Cañada Flintridge, California Dec 25th 2008La Cañada Valley Sun: La Cañada Flintridge, California