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 Jews–the 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
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
World Music Press, 2001
Used by permission.