6 December 2013
3 Tevet 5774
Along with the rest of the world, I want to acknowledge the passing of the great South African leader, Nelson Mandela. As this morning’s Times of Israel article describes, there is an outpouring from Jewish groups and leaders around the world honoring his extraordinary contributions to humanity, while acknowledging his complicated relationship with Israel. To share one quote from former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Mandela “permanently enlarged the horizon of human hope.” In the coming days and weeks, we will find opportunities to reflect on his life and legacy with our students.
I am still feeling the afterglow of the Chanukah holiday and, especially, our community Chanukah celebration Wednesday night. More than 250 people filled our Beit Midrash for food and celebration, a communal candle lighting, and artistic performances by our students, from jazz standards to a classical instrumental rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” to our a capella group’s parody version of the Daft Punk pop hit “Get Lucky” entitled “We’re Up All Night To Eat Latkes.”
I want to share a brief thought about Chanukah and our community that I shared Wednesday evening. One of the traditional laws associated with candle lighting with which I was not familiar when I was growing up has to do with the purpose and meaning of the candles themselves. In my family, after we concluded lighting the candles with the shamash (the candle used to light all of the others), we would burn the bottom of the shamash on one of the candles we had just lit, and then, with the wax now sticky, we would secure it firmly in its spot. Later in life I learned that, as is traditionally recited or sung in the paragraph after candle lighting called “Hanerot Halalu – The candles we are lighting”, “the candles we are lighting are holy, ein lanu reshut l’hishtamesh bahem, ela lirotam bilvad – we have permission not to use them, but rather only to look at them.”
The candles serve as a vehicle for publicizing the miracle of Chanukah to the outside world. Their very presence bears witness to the Chanukah miracle, to the hope and possibility of the few overcoming the many, of the preservation of personal and national Jewish identity in the midst of a majority culture and a changing world, and of light and warmth in a time of darkness and cold. As it is their role to bear witness, it is our privilege simply to witness, to watch, to see those lights burn, rather than use them for any other purpose such as reading or, for that matter, for burning the bottom of the shamash.
As I reflect on this notion of seeing rather than using, I am struck by how often in our lives we are using things and relating to things and people merely functionally. We often do not take the time in our busy world to just be present, to look deeply at one another, and to see, really see, the extraordinary blessings in our lives.
Hanerot halalu reminds us that the rededication of Chanukah includes a rededication to a way of seeing and a way of being in the world. We watch and celebrate our students’ performances because they bring us joy, yes, but also because their artistic talent and creativity in the arts, in general, bear witness to the potential inside each of them. We gather to light candles and to celebrate as a community to appreciate, to stop and see with more than just our eyes, the people – including teachers and students, family and friends – who surround us.
Whether learning for the sake of learning, finding meaning and depth in our Jewish tradition, or feeling connected to and responsible for one another and our world, the ability “lirotam bilvad – to just see” rather than “to use” is a capacity, an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual habit of mind and heart that we strive to develop in our students and ourselves. This is a defining feature of a great school and a kehillah kedosha, a holy community.
Rabbi Marc Baker