Please, do you have a light?
I haven’t become a smoker. But I keep asking this question, not in words but in spirit.
I’m only trying to copy what the Maccabees did twenty-two centuries ago. How bleak it must have been when they re-entered the ruined Temple, the shattered masonry, the broken sanctity, the war against the Seleucid powers far from over. Yet, so the Talmud teaches, they didn’t despair. Instead, they looked for oil to light the Menorah:
They searched and discovered just one vial, intact with the High Priest’s seal.
That they found it, lit it, and that its flame still burns today: this is the miracle of Chanukah.
We, too, need light in these cruel months of war. The unbearable details of 7 October continue to emerge. Israel’s military casualties mount, this family’s child, that family’s son. The hapless civilian population of Gaza suffers unimaginably; the huge death toll rises. Hamas fights on, merciless; hostages remain in its bleak tunnels. Grief spreads. Hatred thrives.
Near home someone chants ‘Kill the Jews’. ‘Why say that?’ I challenge, ‘They did in Sobibor and Auschwitz. God’s abandoned me. God’s abandoned the Jews. God’s…’ Realising the man’s drunk, I move on. But his words show how the refrain is out there.
‘How are you celebrating Chanukah this year?’ I’m asked by the BBC. With muted joy, but with great depth, I answer. For I’ve never felt closer to the Maccabees, searching for something to light in the darkness.
What can I find in the ruins? I’m not looking for a physical vial of oil. Instead, I’m mentally saying to everyone I meet: have you got some oil, some goodness, just a drop, to put in my jar?
I visit Isca, my and my brother’s second mother, at the Royal Free Hospital. Her days seem near their close. A nurse brings a small brush to moisten her lips. It’s not just the action, it’s the kindness and the smile. Where does the staff find the patience and gentleness? They put oil in the jar.
In the supermarket a woman stops every shopper, ‘Buy two cans of soup for the foodbank.’ How many of us, without her reminder, would have walked straight past that box labelled ‘Help Your Community’? That’s more oil in the jar.
I join Together for Humanity opposite Downing Street. Two men, one Palestinian, one Israeli, recount their losses, not to wound each other but to embrace the hope that a better way is possible, that we can live side by side. The crowd’s candles shine through the rainy dark.
In the same London drizzle, I speak at a gathering outside Liverpool Street Station to commemorate the arrival of the first Kindertransport train exactly eighty-five years ago. The girls and boys it carried were the light and hope of their parents, before the darkness asphyxiated them. What selfless love, to send your beloved child to an unknown land. What courage, to begin again alone in an unknown language.
Gradually the jar fills up. My vial of oil has no High Priest’s seal. But what it contains is holy nevertheless, because every drop derives from kindness and there’s nothing more sacred than compassion.
I shall take that oil and try to light it, not just on my Chanukiah but in my life. Through its flames I see innumerable other lights. They don’t extinguish the darkness, but they illumine a path through it. We may not get to the other side; there may even be no other side. But by our lights we shall remain human, caretakers of God’s holy light.