The lights of Chanukah: inner illumination, public values

It’s not just the presents, the chocolate coins and the doughnuts which make Chanukah so many people’s favourite festival. It’s the lights.

The Chanukah candles represent the most inward and most outward of illuminations. They are both our inner light and the light we owe each other, our society and the world.

‘The human spirit is a lamp of God,’ quotes one of my favourite Hasidic teachers, Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger. The single, seemingly insufficient jar of pure olive oil the Maccabees found amidst the ruins of the Jerusalem temple symbolises to him ‘the tiny point’ of purity and holiness which exists in every human being. This point may be small but it is incorruptible, despite all life’s challenges and temptations. Its flame can never be extinguished, because the light with which it burns comes from God.

Hence, in typical Hasidic fashion, the Rebbe creatively misreads the Torah’s command to Aaron, who is charged with kindling the lamps on the Menorah in the Temple. What the Torah says is ‘When you cause the flames to ascend.’ What the Torah really means, he explains, is ‘You must cause your light to ascend’, words addressed not just to Aaron but to every single person, always.

It is often far from easy to find our own inner light. Anxiety, the ceaseless noise of endless interactions, make it hard for us to find recourse to our deeper inner selves. Often, there’s just too much to do, the opportunity simply isn’t there. At other times, sorrow or confusion hover like thick clouds between our harried minds and the stillness we can’t access in our hearts.

That’s why I love the small lights of Chanukah. Just looking at them can help us find the way back.

Frequently, though, we need the help of others, just as the candles on the Chanukiah have to be lit by a shammash. Time and again it’s acts of kindness, generous insights, a word of appreciation, an image from a poem, which illumine the world for me, re-opening the path to my own spirit.

Yet, intimate as our inner lights may be, the rabbis of the Talmud stipulated that the Chanukiah on which they burn must be placed overlooking the reshut harabbim, the busiest public highway. To the mystics those inner flames are loving kindness, moral strength, truth, constancy, beauty and commitment. They are nurtured by faith in life, trust in God, and hope.

It is not enough to reflect on them in solitude. We must use them to light the high roads, back alleys, porches where the homeless try to sleep, chambers where politicians legislate, – all those places, hidden and in plain sight, which define us as a society and world. We have a public duty to contribute from the heart, to shine light both on our own conscience and on that of our entire society, and to act according to what we see.

Chanukah is not only the festival of light, but also of courage, the determination to live according to the values which God’s light illumines in our souls.


After the election – What our values are

Our ancestor Jacob had the right response to a long, hard night when he said to the stranger with whom he’d been wrestling, ‘I won’t let you go until you bless me’.

This is not a comment on the polling results. Like the countless people who spoke to me, I felt with anguish that this election was a choice between different kinds of bad. I could foresee no likely scenario which would leave me truly happy. It goes without saying that I’m no fan of Antisemitism, top down or bottom up, nor of any form of racism.

Rather, I’m focussed on what we, each and every one of us, and each and every community, can and must do in the time ahead. We must fight for our values.

I would have written this whatever the outcome of the elections. What wasn’t clear until morning was exactly which of those values would top the list of those most in jeopardy.

‘We’ve become complacent about moral progress,’ wrote Philip Pullman in Tuesday’s Guardian:

In the doorways of great, stony-hearted buildings, in urine-stinking underpasses, under crumbling bridges, people who have nowhere else to go lie down to sleep. And we go past.

The vast and profound literature of Judaism contains three thousand years of prophetic voices screaming at us that God abhors such complacency. It takes no great insight to know what the values are for which our faith, every true faith and every ethical attitude to life, teaches us to fight.

‘Don’t shut your heart to the poor,’ the Torah demands. To become a country or culture of hard-heartedness is to immolate ourselves morally and spiritually. Open your hand, open your heart, the Torah demands. Don’t let refugees, the homeless, the poor die around the corner from plenty.

‘Heal the sick,’ our daily prayers plead. The National Health Service is this country’s pride. If public money proves in short supply, then the gates of synagogues, mosques, churches and temples must be opened even wider as doorways to compassionate help and understanding for those struggling with physical disability, mental health and loneliness, to those who feel isolated in the search for solidarity and hope.

It’s your world, God, we say daily. We don’t have to be theologians to appreciate that what this really means is that we are stewards, trustees, protectors, temporary residents held responsible for what does not belong to us: the inestimable wealth and wonder of life. Every clean river, every well of drinkable water saves lives. Every field protected from insect- and bird-killing pesticides matters. Every tree not felled for short term interest, every forest restored, matters. Every species saved in the unfathomable interconnectedness of nature is the saving of our children’s children’s lives.

All these issues matter; we must give up on nothing. We pray, as we have in every synagogue each week, that Her Majesty’s Government will guide us in these struggles, or, if not lead then at least listen and follow.

But should this not always prove the case, we should remember that Judaism, like other faiths, knows another forms of power: the inalienable strength of individual conscience, magnified a hundred-fold by the resources and resilience of community, and a thousand-fold by working with other communities of faith, principle and commitment, locally, nationally and across the globe.

In these convictions, one feature of these last days has inspired me above all: seeing so many young people from our community campaigning because of their beliefs.

Some may disagree with their opinions; that’s not the point. They’ve stood up for their values. They give us hope. They teach us how to wrest blessings from the night.


Pre-election nightmares…and convictions

‘Because we belong to one race, the human race,’ said Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger at our synagogue last night in a powerful rebuttal of religious, political and racial Antisemitism. Her words, spoken with that deep conviction modulated by kindness which characterises her, are a fitting prelude to Human Rights Shabbat.

I’ve woken twice this week with nightmares prompted by the forthcoming election. That’s how at 3.00am this morning I found myself thinking of the words with which Jacob awakes from his dream, that wonderful vision of a ladder placed towards the earth and ascending up to heaven: ‘There is God in this place, and I didn’t realise’.

But, unlike in Jacob’s experience, the world doesn’t seem like the gateway to heaven right now. I feel surrounded less by angels than by terrors. I’m not sure I should name them, but these are some of the demons haunting me in the night: The attack by cults of myths and lies on integrity and truth; the world-wide failure so far to act quickly and radically enough to protect our beautiful planet; what unbridled consumption does to the poor and to nature; vast, unjustifiable, unconscionable injustice; the whole unfinished Brexit saga; the language of abuse, particularly on social media, especially towards women; rising populism and racism against refugees, Muslims, Jews; Jew-hate rooted in the Hydra-like Protocols of the Elders of Zion; homelessness, the loss for so many of hearth, hope and everything.

It took me a long time to get back to sleep.

So where is God in this place?

When a bereaved father whose son was murdered by a terrorist says he won’t have the death used to increase hatred in the world – God is in that place, in his heart.

When courageous women (and men) stand for election (in different political parties) because they believe in justice and goodness, despite innumerable threats on social media, including to their very lives – God is in that place.

When a child calls on my mobile and says in an urgent voice, “How do I save the life of this injured bird I just found?” – God is in the hands with which she lifts it gently into a box.

When a woman says on the radio that she’s stopped buying fast fashion and goes to clothes-swaps because her teenage daughter has made her rethink – I believe God is in that place.

When, as happened in the last ten days, I share a platform with an Imam, and again with a leading Christian minister, and we say “We stand together” – then we are warranted in the hope that God will guide us.

When a young person stands up and tells his or her community, ‘This is the charity I’ve run for’, or walked for, or worked for – God is in their commitment.

God is in our hearts, addressing every one of us in the voices of a thousand lives: family, friends, strangers, refugees, homeless people, even the birds and the trees. Nothing, no living thing whatsoever, doesn’t matter. The sacred spirit of life cries out to us from everywhere; it calls from inside our own consciousness. The challenge is to hear it, not just to wake and say ‘God is in this place, and I didn’t realise’, but to stay awake, remain aware and act accordingly.

For there are allies everywhere, in everyone who cherishes life, puts respect before prejudice, generosity before contempt, concern for others before convenience to self.

God is in this place, if we have the conscience, courage and compassion to make it so. Nothing can take that away.


Get in touch...