Look to the Light
by Meira Warshauer
In 164 B.C.E., Syrians ruled the land of Israel and took away the Jews’ right to practice their religion. Judah Maccabee led a rebellion of a small band of soldiers against the mighty Syrian army. They miraculously succeeded in reclaiming sovereignty for the Jewsthe right to rule themselves. To celebrate this victory, they cleaned, repaired, and rededicated the Temple. (The word Hanukah means rededication). The ritual included lighting a branched oil lamp called a menorah. Legend tells us the scant amount of oil left in the Temple miraculously lasted eight days.
Today, this even is observed on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, which falls on varying dates during the month of December. Jews today light candles for eight nights to commemorate these miracles: the victory of a small band over a might army, the miracle of freedom itself, and the miracle of the lights.
Skip to December 25, 1777. George Washington was camped at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania during a difficult winter, and morale was very low. The soldiers had just completed their meager Christmas observance and were bedded down for the night. Washington was making special Christmas rounds of the makeshift barracks. In one corner, he noticed a Jewish private quietly lighting a menorah for the first night of Hanukah, which appened to coincide with Christmas that year. This was his family’s menorah, brought with him from his native Poland when he fled to the New World. On that journey he had carried also the hopes and dreams of his family for a life of freedom. The soldier was crying as he thought of how his family suffered from waves of religious and cultural persecution in Poland, and of the difficult winters they had to endure there. He also reflected on the desperate situation he and his fellow soldiers found themselves in.
Washington approached the young man to comfort him and to ask why he cried. The soldier replied that he was praying, and that his tears flowed with his certainty of Washington’s victory. He explained that the Hanukah lights symbolized the victory of the small Jewish army over the mighty Syrian force. He was positive Washington’s troops would prevail in the same way. Washington gazed at the candle and its warm glow, and the soldier’s faith renewed his strength to fight-- against all odds-- for victory.
We know this because a girl named Louisa Hart wrote the account in 1778 in her diary, when George Washington visited her parents’ home during Hanukah. He was with them as they lit their menorah, and he told them about the previous Hanukah at Valley Forge. Her parents gave him the menorah they used that Hanukah, and today you can see it on display at the White House, as Rabbi Dan Grossman did.
Skip again to December,1993, in Billings, Montana. It s a custom around the world for Jewish families to light the menorah each night of Hanukah and place it in a window of their home. In Billings, Montana, anti-Semitic skinheads threw rocks through the windows where Jewish families had placed their menorahs. One Jewish family spoke out and refused to be intimidated. Reverend Keith Torney, the minister of the First Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ, organized a campaign in the town to support the Jews’ right to celebrate Hanukah in peace. The Billings Gazette printed paper menorah cutouts. All over town, people of good will put the paper menorahs in their windows in solidarity with the Jewish families.
Rabbi Dan Grossman met Reverend Torney a few years ago, when he visited the Holocaust Genocide Resource Center at Rider University, in New Jersey. Reverend Torney was invited to present his views on how we may avoid future Holocausts and how to confront discrimmination, bigotry and bullying. Reverend Torney’s story powerfully demonstrated that when each of us steps forward to say “this is wrong, this must stop now” when we witness hateful acts, then we will stop hatred. We will build stronger, more harmonioius communities.
We will turn away from darkness.
We will look to the light.
Meira Warshauer and Rabbi Dan Grossman, 1998
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