Editor’s Note: Joshua M. Davidson is the senior rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El in New York City. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Like millions of other Americans, I am bewildered and frustrated by the inequities and abuses of freedom that have defined our current moment. Our collective brokenness, exemplified by the acquittal (and by some, celebration) of Kyle Rittenhouse and the racism on display in the trial of the men convicted of killing Ahmaud Arbery, casts a darkness that at times has nearly overwhelmed me. Lately, when that happens, I look to my Hanukkah menorah standing on my bookshelf, awaiting its role in the upcoming holiday.
The Jewish mystics say that the world was created in a state not unlike the one we live in today: broken. The legend can be one of meaning for us all, Jews and non-Jews alike. The 16th-century rabbi, Isaac Luria, taught that God formed the universe by contracting the ubiquitous light of the Divine presence to make room for the physical world. But God’s brightness was so overpowering, that the vessels into which it was gathered shattered in a blaze of Divine sparks.
The shards of the vessels and the sparks embedded themselves in all created things and in each of us. And there they remain waiting to be found. Our human task is to find them, and nurture back to full brightness the Divine light burning in every human being and in the world around us.
At times we may feel as if God’s presence has indeed contracted from this world. And whether we believe in God or not, we may imagine ourselves powerless to repair the world’s brokenness.
But we are not powerless. The message of this season is the potential of the smallest bit of light to push back the darkness. For Jews, the Maccabees’ story and the legend of the single cruse of oil burning eight days signals the possibility that a dedicated few, inspired by faith in their purpose, can reshape history. For Christians, the birth of Jesus kindles the hope that God is near to us, and that personal redemption remains within our grasp and through it the healing of the world.
The Hanukkah menorah holds nine candles. The first, called the shamash, is used to light the other eight. This Hanukkah, I am ascribing to each one a meaning, all of equal importance.
The shamash, the helper candle, will represent me – my power to become better in the new year; and through my own moral growth, my ability to spread light in the moral darkness that surrounds us.
The first of the other eight candles, I will kindle for the tireless advocates of justice and fairness, whatever their partisan affiliation, who see their efforts frustrated by elected officials prioritizing their own wellbeing over the country’s.
The second, I will light for Black Americans, who may be wondering whether the American judicial system will ever truly care equally about them.
The third, I will light for women, still enduring a power differential in most every area of their lives that results in bias of every form, from sexual harassment to workplace discrimination.
The fourth, I light for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, who also witness progress moving all-too-slowly, and in many communities remain targets of fearmongering and whisper campaigns.
The fifth, will be for immigrants around the world, who are regarded with suspicion and detained at borders, leaving them homeless and stateless and stripped of dignity.
The sixth, I light for the aged, whose contributions to society are too often ignored because they are “old” and believed unable to comprehend or embrace the direction the world is headed; and for the disabled, whose inward gifts may be masked by their outward challenges, and whose needs go unheard and rights neglected.
The seventh, I light for the planet Earth, helpless victim of humanity’s greed, shortsightedness, willful disregard, and deliberate destruction.
And the eighth, I light for our children, who will have to live with the damage the generations before them have wrought, unless we repair it.
Each of us will identify our own lights – on our menorahs, in our windows, or on our trees. But however we celebrate, the act of kindling light can be, if we wish it, an act of illuminating the sparks burning in every human being and all created things. When we learn to look at the world and at others – no matter their color, their ethnicity, their gender, their age, their ability, their faith, their education, their wealth, or their politics – and recognize those sparks; and when we accept our responsibility to make them glow again; then we will have taken a first step toward kindling the light and restoring the hope that will heal our dark and fractured world.