23 December 2008
26 Kislev 5769 (Second Day of Chanukah)
Sunday night began the festival of Chanukah and, despite our second snow day in a row on Monday, we surely feel a special energy in our school during our one day of this short week (in part the energy of a festival of and in part the anticipation of winter vacation!). Today we harness this energy and conclude our day by coming together as a community for Chanukah candle lighting, words of Torah, and festive arts performances by our students.
Chanukah is a rich and complex holiday, replete with themes that resonate with our modern lives. We commemorate a national battle and victory against an oppressor that denied us religious and political freedom. We remember, also, our internal culture wars about Jewish identity and assimilation, about the relationship between Judaism and Hellenism and the extent to which Jewish culture is or should be influenced by and interwoven with the majority culture around it. And, we recall and retell a timeless spiritual battle as well. The Maccabees’ struggle for religious freedom and the rededication of the Temple represent a national-political victory, as well as the preservation of the spirit of the Jewish people. In the Talmud, the Rabbis direct our attention to the “miracle of the oil” rather than the political-military victory: the relighting of the menorah in the Temple and our ritual candle lighting today symbolize the refueling of the inextinguishable pilot light of the Jewish soul, of the Jewish People’s spirit, which are resilient enough that one cruse of oil can last – against all physical odds – for eight days.
At certain points in our history and our lives, people have fought and will fight to oppress us and to extinguish our spirit. Against this kind of evil, we learn from the Maccabees and Jewish history that we must rise up and fight. But often darkness, like the short, cold days of the winter, can take a toll on us in more subtly destructive ways – concealing the light of our soul, sometimes for long enough that we must search diligently to rediscover it. In our society and in high school in particular, social, emotional, and psychological pressures and expectations often threaten to hide adolescents’ true and best selves. Sometimes we mask our inner selves for fear of being rejected or for doubts about our self-worth; and, sometimes the world seems to focus only on the external – our physical beauty, our objective accomplishments, materialism, societal notions of success. What about the eternal, internal flame of the child? Chanukah reminds us of this timeless spiritual and educational struggle as well.
How appropriate, then, that this past weekend our students performed Cyrano De Bergerac, a play very much about this theme, and surprisingly relevant to high school. In the words of the show’s director, whose artistic sensibilities, educational instincts, and capacity to develop leadership and independence in our students fuel their spirits and inspire our community:
“Cyrano De Bergerac is a true romantic tragedy. In it we meet a figure of great worth, intelligence, bravery and spirit, with an enormous heart that pours out gorgeous language – who is doomed to loneliness through no fault of his own. He suffers for the misfortune of his appearance. He is denied love because he is ugly. It’s a sad play, but one with which it is easy to identify. Who hasn’t felt his true self hidden by something on the outside? Or that no one sees who she truly is?”
It is powerful to watch our students on the stage and to be awed by their talent, energy, creativity, their teamwork and interconnectedness, their joy and their capacity to bring our black box theater to life, not to mention their sword fighting! Cyrano’s substance, as well as the process and medium of theater itself, touch upon these themes of personal identification, of our inner and outer selves. Ironically, the stage would seem to be a place where you can, and perhaps should, hide who you are, where playing someone else is the goal, where you seemingly escape your true self; but, my experiences participating in theater and my observations of our students who dedicate themselves so passionately to theater – both actors and crew – indicate otherwise. At its best theater taps into and brings out the true and best selves of the students who take part in it. What evoked my emotions during and after the show was certainly the moving lyricism and our students’ tremendous capacities to bring his characters to life. Yet even more powerful and more emotional was the sense that, despite their acting, I was staring face to face with my students’ souls on stage, their true and full selves.
In his 1921 introduction to the play, A.G.H. Spiers used Chanukah-appropriate language and metaphors to describe the emotions that the play evokes in its audience members: “even after the performance . . . there still lingers with us a sufficient glimmer of his (Rostand, the playwright’s) vision to shed, temporarily at least, a new light upon life.” I certainly basked in the “glimmer,” the afterglow of Cyrano’s ensemble production – of the passion and energy of cast and crew alike.
As we stare at our Chanukah candles this year, when the winter is particularly dark for more reasons than one, may our spirit – our values and aspirations – burn bright; and, may our students’ magnificent production of Cyrano De Bergerac inspire us to search for our inner beauty and our best selves, as individuals, as a community, as a Jewish People.
Chag Urim (Chanukah) Sameach,
Rabbi Marc Baker