Chanukah – Light the Flames of Hope, Freedom and Life

The lights of Chanukah will burn more brightly when we do something to bring light – the light of justice, the light of peace, the light of freedom – to those who live in darkness.

Tonight we celebrate the fourth night of Chanukah. This holiday was declared by Judah Maccabee (approximately 164 BCE) after the Jewish minority were victorious over the Greeks who had taken over the land of Israel and had imposed harsh restrictions on Jewish practice and observance.

The victory celebrates religious freedom, the freedom to live life on our own terms, without being subject to the harshness of life under duress.

For most, we were born into a life of freedom. Some members of our community however, truly know how precious this gift is: having emigrated to the Greater Boston Area from the then Communist regimes of the former Soviet Union or other Soviet bloc countries. They experienced first-hand the notion of “pidyon shvoo’im” – redeeming the captive, and they know what it means to truly celebrate a chanukat habayit – the dedication of their own home, where they can live freely as they choose, without fear, without censorship, with all the rights and responsibilities that freedom entails. This is what Chanukah is all about: the ability to live freely as one chooses, to celebrate religion as a free people. Freedom means having clothes to wear, food to eat, a bed in which to sleep, a welcoming and safe place to call “home.”

However, despite the fact that we have many freedoms, we are still living in dark times. We know all too well that there are many people for whom oppression and exile, war and famine have become the “norm.” Hatred and violence rage on. Injustices prevail.

The Jewish community here in MetroWest (the communities in the western suburbs of Boston) has opened our arms and hearts to those who suffer. We light our candles on Chanukah as a beacon of light and hope to all.

Last Friday evening, one of the Kurdish Syrian Refugee families whom we are sponsoring, the Hamzas, were part of our Shabbat evening service at the Biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism conference in Boston. The Hamzas came to MetroWest after fleeing from war-torn Syria in 2014.

The Hamza Family and the Prayer Migzin Wrote

Mizgin Hamza, the mother, wrote the most beautiful prayer, which she read in Arabic with one of her daughters reading with her antiphonally, in English. This family, this beautiful prayer, inspired and moved all 6500 Reform Jews who gathered from North America, Israel and other parts of the world at the Reform Movements as we prepared to sing: “Mi Chamocha” – our Jewish prayer which we recite twice daily reminding us of our own liberation from bondage in Egypt. On this 5th night of Chanukah, I share Mizgin’s prayer with you now:

O God, Ruler of Rulers, who renders decisions and is capable of all,

I stand before You on this blessed Friday night to say a prayer for all our friends in this room

To fill their paths with light

To protect them from evil

To protect them from all danger.

O angels on high,

I ask you to come to this world and make it beautiful

And to extinguish its fires

And to open the doors of goodness and blessing and to bestow on them your mercy, oh God.

We are lacking and You are perfect, O God.

O God, You are the Knower of all.

O God, You are the way, now and always,

O God, please heed my prayer.

Let Mizgin’s prayer remind us that no matter what our religion, we are all God’s children, we are all created “b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God.” The lessons of our past and the lessons of the Torah remind us that it is not just our own who are created b’tzelem Elohim, it is every single human being. The lights of Chanukah teach us, that if we kindle one spark, that spark can ignite multiple flames and create a roaring fire that will light up even the darkest night – that is, if we save one life, it is as if we have saved an entire world.

The lights of Chanukah will burn more brightly when we do something to bring light to those who live in darkness.

The lights of Chanukah will cast a warmer glow, when we try to find an end to war and injustice, oppression and exile, racism, hunger and pain.

So as we watch our candles burn and glow this Chanukah, this Festival of Lights , let us make a promise to keep the flame alive: as a promise of hope, a promise of freedom, a promise of life.






Chanukah: Lighting the Sparks of Justice

My six-year old nephew Max is a wonderful combination of raucous Ninja-turtle-loving boy and mature-beyond-his years sensitive soul.

I love sitting with him in restaurants as he spontaneously compliments our server by telling her: “You’re beautiful!” Or, when we’re at a family gathering, he will suddenly tell everyone: “I love you! Group hug!”

So when my sister-in-law posted this photo of Max on Facebook from the first night of Chanukah, I wasn’t surprised to see the most beautiful expression of joy on his face as he observed his Chanukiyah with its glowing candles (a Chanukiyah is a menorah specifically used for Chanukah. A menorah is any multi-branched candelabrum). He made this chanukiyah himself and his face is just radiant – like the candles:

Max Chanukah 2015

Max, and his nine-year-old sister Zoe, care about the world around them. Even at their young ages, they understand that not everyone feels the warmth and glow of the holiday lights, or the love of family and friends, or the feeling of having food in their bellies or the security of a safe and secure home.

The word “chanukah” means “dedication.” Historically, our holiday is a celebration of religious freedom – freedom of the Jewish people’s right to practice our own religion in our own country in safety and security. We celebrate the rededication of our Temple in Jerusalem which had been desecrated by the Greek/Syrian army in 165 BCE. The actual ritual celebration evolved to become a “Festival of Lights.”

(For a more complete description of Chanukah – please see the description here: History of Chanukah)

There are those who still threaten to fracture our world today. Every day, we read of examples of xenophobia (fear of foreigners or “the other”), hatred, violence, war, bloodshed, refugees with nowhere to go, hunger, poverty, homelessness, racism. The list of maladies which afflicts us seems never-ending.

Yet, Chanukah is all about hope. The flames on the candles remind us that all it takes is one spark to light a flame: a flame that leads to justice, a flame that leads to healing and wholeness. One flame in the darkness can bring great light, great warmth to a very dark place: one spark of righteous deeds can inspire others to do the same.

This Chanukah, this Festival of Lights, as we kindle our Chanukah candles, I hope that we can dedicate ourselves anew to bringing justice, hope and light to our broken world.

Let each of us be that spark or flame that ignites others to join in repairing our world: “ani v’atah n’shaneh et ha’olam” – together, you and I can change the world.

And we’ll work together to keep the flame alive, as Peter, Paul and Mary sing: “Don’t Let the Light Go Out”


Chanukah- Bringing Light to Others

When I was growing up, Chanukah was literally a “festival of MANY lights!” As the oldest of six children, my parents gave each one of us our own chanukiyah. (Note: A menorah is any multi-branched candelabra. A chanukiyah is a menorah specifically designated for Chanukah. It has nine candle holders: one for each of the eight nights of Chanukah, plus one for the “shammash” – the helper candle that is used to light the other candles).

Every morning during Chanukah, each of us would carefully choose which color candles we were going to light that night. My mother placed a table in front of one of our living room windows with all of the chanukiyot (plural form of Chanukiyah) circled strategically around. The mitvah – the commandment of Chanukah is to publicize the miracle. Hence the directive to light the candles in a window. My siblings and I loved watching all those candles burn and glow!

My Canadian Moose Chanukiyah - one of my favorites!
My Canadian Moose Chanukiyah – one of my favorites!


My mother's Chanukiya that she bought on her first visit to Israel in 1957.
My mother’s Chanukiya that she bought on her first visit to Israel in 1957.

I have a collection of many beautiful and unique chanukiyot now. But the one I still use every year on Chanukah is the one I used growing up, the one I inherited from my mother. It is not beautiful, but it takes me back to my childhood, it reminds me of my mother and helps make me feel as if she is part of my Chanukah celebration, even though she is no longer alive. That feeling helps the flame of my candles glow even more brightly.

It is no accident that Chanukah, our festival of lights, occurs during December. These are some of the darkest days/nights of the year: we are approaching our winter solstice. Once again, Chanukah reminds us that during the darkest time of the year, we human beings have the power to kindle lights against the darkness. We have the power to brighten the lives of others.

Let me suggest that we can make the flames of our own Chanukah candles burn even more brightly by dedicating at least one of the nights of our own Chanukah celebration to a family tzedakah project instead of giving gifts to each other. The word tzedakah comes from the root tzedek – which means “justice” and “righteousness”. We don’t simply give tzedakah because it makes us feel good, but rather out of our sense of responsibility to God and to taking care of others in the world around us.

There are a number of different provisions for tzedakah outlined in the Torah, all further clarified by the rabbis in the Talmud. They all center around one basic principle: no matter what form our tzedakah takes, we must make sure that we never compromise anyone’s dignity, honour or self-respect. In fact, the highest form of tzedakah is when we can help someone to help themselves, so that they will no longer be dependent upon the help of others.

Tzedakah is not something that is limited to one night of the year. Perhaps you can use this opportunity as a family to figure out a family tzedakah project that will be meaningful for your family to participate in all year long. This is something that both parents and children can research, donate time and funds to, educate others about, spend a little time at the Shabbat dinner table reflecting on and do some type of culminating event at the end of the year. (It is customary to donate tzedakah every Shabbat right before Shabbat begins). I think you will find that no matter what project you and/or your family choose, this year-long involvement will not only make your Chanukah candles glow more brightly for others, but enable them to glow all year long for you as well.

Chag Urim Sameach! May you have a Happy Festival of Lights!

Click here for some links for helpful Chanukah resources:

Chanukah resources from Rabbi Sharon Sobel @ Temple Isaiah, Stony Brook, NY