I don’t know whether I was half awake or asleep, but during the night of this new moon of Kislev I felt the lights of Chanukkah reaching out to me like a warm guiding hand.
It was two years ago, when the long winter lockdown was beginning and we’d been obliged to close the synagogue for a second time. I spoke over Zoom of how as a boy I used to see in my grandparent’s house the Chanukkah candles reflected in the windowpanes, and the reflection of the reflection in the bay windows opposite. The lights seemed like sentinels, like welcomers to wayfarers half-lost as they traversed the night, reaching out to them in the darkness with their hope and warmth.
Last night I saw those candles again and felt them draw me towards them. ‘Join us’, they seemed to say, ‘be part of our light.’ That’s what Chanukkah does: it warms the darkness of the spirit; it brings light to the community.
‘What do you do?’ I asked Cormac Hollingsworth, our guest at our forthcoming event Such a Thing as Society? ‘By profession I’m a banker,’ he said, ‘But for ten years I was chair of Hope Not Hate; now I’m on the steering group of Warm Welcome.’ ‘What’s that?’ I enquired. ‘It’s creating thousands of spaces across the country which will be kept warm and open for children, and for people in general, who can’t afford the bills.’
‘It’ll be a hard winter’: the words ring ominously, like the ‘hard rain’s a-gonna fall’ in Bob Dylan’s famous song.
So how we can make it lighter and warmer for someone, for anyone?
I’ve been having many conversations about hope, mostly with other people, though some, if I’m honest, in the depths of my own heart. One of the best lines I’ve heard is: ‘Never think, or let anyone else think, that simple good deeds are too small to matter.’ To paraphrase the famous Mishnah: Whoever makes life warmer for one single person is as if they do so for the entire world. (Sanhedrin 4:5, 2nd century)
That’s why I’ll be out planting trees this Sunday with clergy of all faiths on a hillside by Abergavenny. Who knows what may grow from our actions? We have to keep our sense of purpose alive and strong.
This week our study group reaches Pslam 40. Two antithetical phrases have stayed with me from the text: the grim libbi azavani, ‘my heart deserted me,’ and the all-important ‘God, I hope and hope again.’ Appreciating those latter words, I researched them in the world of Midrash, rabbinic homily, where I found the following:
Should you say [with Jeremiah] ‘Harvest-time’s over, the summer’s gone and we’ve still not been saved,’ then remember [with the Psalmist] to ‘hope in God, be strong and fill your heart with courage.’ If you say, ‘I’ve already done that!’ go and do it again. If you ask, ‘How long should I stay hopeful?’ the answer is ‘always and forever.’
I never met my Tante Rosel, great-aunt Rose; I think she died before I was born. To my grandparents she was a legend. Through all times, thick and thin, she’d be up before dawn, down in the kitchen singing as she baked the morning’s bread. ‘That’s the way to be!’ my grandparents would say.
So I was happy when last night I saw those same candles which I’d spoken about two years ago and felt them reach out to me as if they were saying, ‘Come join us, you and your community. Be part of our light!’