I wish everybody Chag Urim Sameach, a Happy Festival of Lights, on this fifth day of Chanukah, the eve of the Shabbat which marks the 47th birthday of our congregation.
Last night we were privileged to host members of different faith communities; it was a warm-hearted gathering. Reverend Philip, from the local church of St Mary’s, spoke of ‘a contagion of light.’ I’ve heard the word ‘contagion’ many times during these Covid months, but never before in a positive sense.
The Talmud asks a technical question: ‘Is it permitted to light one Chanukah candle from another?’ On a practical level, it’s not really an issue: every Chanukiah has, as well as its eight holders for each of the lights of the eight-day festival, a special place for the shammash or servant candle. It’s traditionally set higher than the rest, just as Abraham and Sarah remained standing so that they could serve their seated guests. If any of the Chanukah candles goes out, one takes the shammash to re-ignite them.
But on a symbolic level the issue is real. We need our own light, and we need each other’s too. Sometimes, the fire in us burns strong: we’re excited with life, full of the love of it, with plans and hopes, and dreams as well as deadlines to fulfil. But in harder weeks our inner light fades; fears, griefs and thick mental shadows cloud it out. Why be here? What’s the point?
That’s when we need one another’s light and inspiration. Maybe that’s why Jewish law rules that, yes, one may indeed kindle one Chanukah candle from another. Emotionally and spiritually, we do so all the time. That’s what Reverend Philip must have meant by the ‘contagion of light.’
I’ve remained a rabbi of the same community all my career, not because it’s always been easy but because of the light I’m constantly given. There are the little, not-so-little, things: ‘We’ve made a food rota while their mother’s in hospital;’ ‘We’ve created a new game so every child can engage;’ ‘We’re offering those saying Kaddish the opportunity to tell us in a sentence about the person they’re remembering.’ There’s little so humbling as everyday thoughtfulness. It takes us down into ourselves, touches the heart and replenishes our own inner flame.
Just as the Chanukah lamps are sacred, so is that of each person. Though death takes their warmth from us, it cannot entirely extinguish the light of those we love. When I visit the cemetery where many of our community now lie, I think of them as much with affection as sorrow. They inspire me still.
There’s David Jackson, who had a stroke at the age of forty. When he came from Liverpool to London, he knew little Hebrew. He made himself into a scholar; he attended everything. He could muster a wicked smile, had a self-deprecating sense of humour and obstinately refused to stop feeding KitKats to my dog. He loved the Psalms, and even after a further stroke kept him to his room, wrote music and a personal commentary for each of the hundred-and-fifty in the Psalter. David, I sense you here, sitting where you always sat, just behind where I’m writing now in this same room.
Most of my job as rabbi consists in enabling candles to be replenished from the candles which burn; those which give light all the way back from the ancient Jewish past, through the travails of millennia, to our lives today; those we proffer each other, and those we share across our faiths and out into lonely and dark places in our societies and occluded depths in our souls.
On this lighting of one light from another the flame of our collective resilience, courage and hope depends.