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.






Justice & Freedom for All: All Are Welcome

When we entered the USA as refugees, we were welcomed by the Statue of Liberty, on whose base the poem by Emma Lazarus is inscribed: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

I grew up in a house where my parents instilled within me and my siblings the values of tikkun olam – social justice and repairing our world. At early ages, they taught us the Jewish notion that, “If your eye has seen something, and your ear has heard something, you can no longer be uninvolved or unaffected. You are now a witness and you are obligated to act.”

My parents modeled this behavior by taking us to marches and rallies for Israel and Soviet Jewry in New York City. We marched against the war in Viet Nam. We were taught that marching and attending rallies were good, but not enough. We learned how to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. They taught us to discover what actions to pursue that would make a difference in the lives of others.

As a rabbi in the public realm, I walk a fine balance: I minister to those whose thoughts and feelings fall on all sides of the political and social spectrums. At times, I must keep my personal feelings and ideas to myself, in order to respond pastorally to our entire congregation or community. Yet, at times, I feel that moral imperative to speak out, to share the prophetic voices from our Jewish teachings, to heed the call of our Jewish tradition.

Now is not the time to remain silent. For if I remain silent, I am complicit with the injustices taking place in our society.

Now is the time to speak out. Now is the time to act. Now is the time for our community to come together and unite – no matter one’s political or social leanings. We must remember that in our Pledge of Allegiance, we take an oath that our country promises to be a place of “justice and freedom for all.”

I am alarmed at the events taking place in my country — my beloved United States of America, the “home of the free and the brave” — in recent days.

I am especially ashamed and horrified by the Executive Order enacted this past Friday, January 27th, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which barred citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the USA for at least the next 90 days. The order is far-reaching: among its actions, it stops the admission of all refugees into the United States for at least four months – even those that have already gone through a rigorous two-year vetting process; Trump prioritizes Christian refugees over Muslim refugees in the EO; it bans Syrian refugees altogether as “detrimental to the interests of the United States” and so much more.

We all witnessed on the news that through this Executive Order, permanent residents of the United States with valid Green Cards, who have been living here, working here, raising their families here; students and faculty studying and teaching at our universities; people adding to our economy in the workforce and so many others were caught either in our airports on Friday, or turned back when trying to board planes to return to the United States. People who have added so much to our economy, to our culture to the great melting pot of our great nation have been told they are “detrimental to the interests” of our country and cannot enter the USA.

Refugees who no longer have homes in their countries of origin, who are fleeing from the atrocities and harshness of war, hatred, strife, xenophobia, discrimination, poverty and so much more have been told that they are not welcome here.

With the exception of Native Americans, most of us came to the United States as refugees. For centuries, people have come to the United States seeking a life of freedom, opportunity, and peace. Many of our ancestors either came here either seeking a better economic life for themselves or because they too were fleeing from harsh regimes where they could not live their lives in freedom and peace. Many North American Jews came to the United States because they fled from Nazi Germany and the horrors of the Holocaust, or even years earlier from the Tzarist regime in Russia.

In recognition of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (great philosopher, scholar, moral thinker and the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth) spoke out in a video message: “The Holocaust did not define what it is to be a Jew. The Holocaust defined what it is to be human.”

To be human is to recognize that we are all created “b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God,” as we are taught in Genesis 1:27. It is to recognize that in the face of hatred, injustice, and intolerance, no matter what our politics, we cannot remain silent. It is to live out the biblical injunction “justice justice you shall pursue – tzedek tzedek tirdof.” (Deuteronomy 16:20). The biblical imperative to “love your neighbor” knows no religious or national boundaries. Our common interest in security is only undermined when we allow fear to dismantle the very principles of our democracy.

As Elie Wiesel said, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” He said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.” To paraphrase, we must always speak out when we see a wrong. We must find a way to change the wrongs we see taking place in our society, to use our political process to our advantage to make the changes we need. We saw that notion in action with the protests at the airports this past Friday, and with the wonderful actions of the US Federal judges who issued orders preventing parts of the Executive Order from being enacted.

We need to reach out to our Muslim brothers and sisters here in the United States, as well as to those of every ethnic background, every religion, every race – and say: “You are welcome here!” There is no one kind of “American people” – we are a beautiful potpourri, made up of peoples of every gender, every country, every religion every ethnic background, every sexual orientation.

Let us continue to raise our voices, speak out, join our hands together, work for a better tomorrow, a brighter future for all.

People of faith have a particular responsibility to speak out. The Koran teaches: “We have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.” In our Jewish tradition, in our Reform Movement’s Friday Sabbath liturgy we read:

Standing on the parted shores of history
we still believe what we were taught
before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;
That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
that there is a better place, a promised land,
that the winding way to that promise
passes through the wilderness.
That there is no way to get from here to there
except by joining hands, marching
Mishkan T’filah (Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007), page 157

Do Not Remain Indifferent – Syrian Refugee Crisis

It is up to us to act, to mobilize, to raise our arm and be that beacon of light “lifting our lamp beside the golden door” helping people find refuge, safety, security and a place to call ‘home.’

The Statue of Liberty is a “quintessential” New York landmark, anchored in the Harbor in lower Manhattan, just south of Battery Park.

We take this special iconic site for granted. We see it all the time. We have a tendency to forget what Lady Liberty is supposed to represent.

How often do we think of the poem inscribed on its base, by Jewish poet, Emma Lazarus, in which the Statue of Liberty is depicted as the “Mother of Exiles?

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The huddled masses “yearning to breathe free” are crying out to us now: from Syria, Eritrea and so many other places throughout the world: 60 million people world-wide are displaced for one reason or another. We are in the midst of one of the worst refugee/humanitarian crises of our time since the Holocaust.

It is up to us to act, to mobilize, to raise our arm and be that beacon of light “lifting our lamp beside the golden door” helping people find refuge, safety, security and a place to call ‘home.’

Our hearts ache. Our joy these Holy Days is incomplete. As long as people are suffering, our world cannot be filled with shalom (peace) or shleimut (wholeness). 

The time for action is now. There is much to do. Together, you and I can change the world.

"Hear the Call, Be the Call" - Action Steps
“Hear the Call, Be the Call” – Action Steps

Click here for my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon with more details: “Do Not Remain Indifferent – the Syrian Refugee Crisis”


See the flyer for a few suggested action steps.