by Daniel R. Weiss
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, Tennessee.
When I was younger, I was afraid of the dark. Just like so many of our children, I wouldn’t go to sleep unless my nightlight was working. I needed to be able to see, something, anything. I couldn’t rely on what I thought was there; I needed to be able to physically see it. It was a fear of the unknown.
A few years back I had an opportunity to attend a lecture by Rabbi Harold Kushner who was speaking about his book, Conquering Fear. As I re-read the book and listened to Rabbi Kushner’s words, I thought of this week’s Torah Portion, Vayeshev, in which Joseph is put in many compromising situations, situations where he could have cowered in fear.
The parsha begins with Joseph, a dreamer, sharing his dreams with his parents and brothers. The dreams anger the brothers who in turn plot to do him harm. When they are out in the field, away from their parents, the brothers throw Joseph into a pit, into a world of darkness. This was not the only time that Joseph found himself in a pit. Later in the story, he is thrown into another pit, a prison.
The metaphor of “being in the pits” is an idea of gloom, of utter sadness and depression. It is the lack of seeing light. It is not knowing; not seeing. It is a debilitating fear. The same is true of cloudy days. The darkness of a cloud hanging over one’s head is synonymous with gloom and depression. We can take this a step further when we think about the shortness of our days. We are closing in on the shortest days of the year (in terms of hours of sunlight).
Light is synonymous with knowledge and with happiness. We must therefore look for opportunities to bring light into the world. Each of us must be a beacon of light.
In the Mishkan (traveling Tabernacle) and in the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple), we had a Menorah. The Menorah stood tall and was a shining light to the people. It gave us hope and symbolized our spiritual and intellectual growth. The illumination of the Menorah served as a beacon for the entire Jewish people.
During Chanukah we add much needed light into our lives. Each day we increase the light and therefore increase our joy. Chanukah is called the “Festival of Lights”. We recall the re-dedication of the Holy Temple and the miracles that were performed over two thousand years ago. Chanukah is a time to think about how we are going to re-dedicate ourselves to the education of Jewish children.
Today, we lose sight of the true meaning of Chanukah. We forget about the Maccabees (Hammers), a small army who fought for freedom and defeated a much larger, stronger army. We forget about the purity of light, knowledge.
The words of Al HaNisim (a prayer added to our services each day of Chanukah) mirror that of our Joseph story. We learn from Al HaNisim that at times we have lost our light; much like being in a dark pit. During our darkest days and nights, we must not lose our hope. We often need a spark to re-awaken us – to remind us of our purpose. Light has the potential to give life – not only physically but also educationally and spiritually.
As Joseph found himself in the pit, he undoubtedly struggled with his emotions, wondering if he would ever see the light again, hoping to get out of the darkness.
Each of us can light a spark in another person. We must use the light of inspiration and view ourselves as the Shamash (the helper candle). We must illuminate places where there is darkness, whether physical, educational or spiritual. As a spark ignites each of us, we must spread the fire to another. We are the ones capable of lifting someone from the pits and providing them with the opportunity to learn and to grow. We do this by educating our children, by putting them in a community that not only supports them but lights up the path in front of them.
This past year, our Eighth Grade Class purchased a beautiful Menorah for the school. The Menorah is located in our Front Entrance and will be lit each day as a reminder that our alumni shed a light for all of us.
Please join us this coming Thursday, December 6, as we will hold our school Chanukah celebration. We will honor Judy and Larry Moss for being our Shamash, by lighting the way for other’s through their transformational gift to our school. We will dedicate our Middle school building as the Moss building. Finally, we will light our new Chanukah Menorah, a gift from a family that visited our school this year from Israel so that their child could receive treatment at St. Jude. Their gift was in gratitude of our Maccabees, our teachers, who shine a light of menschlikeit throughout our community and to thank our school for opening our doors to the siblings of those receiving treatment.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Urim Sameach, a happy “light spreading” Chanukah (beginning this Sunday evening).