‘I will not let you go until you bless me:’ these words, which Jacob says to the unnamed adversary who assails him in the night as he stands alone by the Jabok river, have become my motto.
They express the same attitude as the Maccabees, who, after re-conquering the desolate Temple precincts in Jerusalem, would not abandon the search among the ruins until they found the source of light and kindled the flame which has since illumined with courage and hope the entire history of the Jewish People.
Inevitably, we face challenges, personal and collective. Often, with courage, the help of others and maybe some luck, we somehow manage to struggle through them until break of day. Yesterday I heard for the first time the phrase ‘post traumatic growth,’ with the following definition:
‘Post-traumatic growth doesn’t deny deep distress, but rather posits that adversity can unintentionally yield changes in understanding oneself, others, and the world.’
I hadn’t known the name, but I’ve witnessed the reality many times:
‘Rabbi, I’ve been through…
It’s been lonely, hard.
But now I’m there for other people.
I wanted you to know in case you hear of someone else going through …’
Illness, sorrow: such pain and mental suffering must not be romanticised or ennobled. But if, in the inner spaces where we struggle, we can somehow extract blessing from our fearful encounters with them, they can become lamps in our hand to negotiate the winding steps to chambers in our heart we may not previously have explored. These are not easy places to inhabit, but they can become the source of our deepest compassion and most enduring commitments.
As individuals, though, we cannot vanquish everything. Years ago, I visited an elderly lady who had motor neurone disease. She was still able to speak, just; still able to hold a pencil, just. ‘Have I got it right?’ she asked, indicating her drawing of a baby elephant. She died a few weeks later.
She could not overcome the physical impact of that horrible illness; no one could. But this baby elephant was her ‘yes’ to life nonetheless, her stamina, her hope, her seizing of blessing from the last of her days. I still see that drawing before me. It’s a small thing; it’s a magnificent thing, tender, wonderful and great.
It is this very courage and faith in life, – with its baby elephants, children, adults, animals, everything – which together we muster in the short, dark days of the pandemic through which we are now living.
We have many assailants in this long night: the illness itself, fear, insecurity about the future, social injustice and cruelty. But, together, we shall not let go until we have grasped blessings nevertheless: deeper solidarity; less entitlement and greater appreciation; humbler recognition of our interdependence as humanity and part of nature; the determination to be healers in whatever way we can.
It is this very tenacity which led Rene Cassin to co-draft in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which we honour next week on 10 December, International Human Rights Day, in recognition
‘of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family [as] the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’
On Thursday evening, the first night of Chanukah we will not just take a match to a candle in our window. We will rekindle in our spirit the determination to seek out the source of light whatever the circumstances. We will find it and make it burn in our soul; we will acknowledge it and bless it in others; we will not give up until, together, we wrest blessing from this darkness.