I Believe In Miracles: A Hanukkah Message in a Time of Pandemic


“I’m exhausted.” It’s not always the first response to my standard opening question, “How are you doing?” But when I’m talking to Jewish leaders both lay and professional, after we get through the usual, “Ok,” or, “Things are going surprisingly well” — when I ask again, the burnout of leading in this period comes through. I feel it too. It’s hard to keep our inner light of inspiration burning all the time while living through an extended crisis.

It is well known that our preferred method of lighting the Hanukkah lights is to use a Shamash, a “helper candle,” to perform the mitzvah. It is so integral to our practice that our hanukkiyot include a space for 9 candles or wicks, rather than the 8 needed for the mitzvah itself.

The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) therefore asks an interesting question — if one did not have a shamash (say on the last night you’re a candle short!), can one use one of the actual Hanukkah candles to light another? One of the great debating pairs of the Talmud takes up the dispute: Rav says “no;” Shmuel says “yes.”

Among the many reasons cited by the Talmud for Rav’s position is that using one of the actual Hanukkah candles “weakens” the mitzvah. If the candle drips some wax, or if the vessel of oil loses a few drops as one kindles a new set of lights, it will diminish the strength or duration of the mitzvah. Shmuel is evidently less concerned — any weakening is barely noticeable, and better to allow for another set of lights to be kindled, thus multiplying the mitzvah.

In past years I’ve always been drawn towards Shmuel’s position. It seemed like the capacity we each have to inspire others to mitzvot should be limitless. But this year I’m surprised to find myself more sympathetic to Rav’s thinking. Supporting or inspiring others does take a little extra energy each time, and as we know from living through the last ten demanding months, it adds up to a lot!

So this Hanukkah I am taking comfort in the essence of the miracle of the oil itself. It wasn’t that the cruse of sacred oil lasted forever, but that it lasted longer than could ever have been expected.

When I think of leadership during this pandemic the image that comes to mind is of people “burning the candle at both ends.” Yet we’ve done more than we could have ever imagined — we have created community, adapted technology, transformed worship and education, and counseled those who are ill or in crisis. We have made our existing resources go far beyond what we could have expected, and have found new resources to meet our communities’ changing needs. Facing a growing number of challenges with limited means, we have truly worked miracles.

But our oil can’t last forever. Our candles do burn down. How can we make the miracle endure?

First of all, we need to learn to find ways to put more into our reservoirs. We need to make time regularly to step back from our efforts. Embrace Shabbat. Spend time virtually with family and friends. Do something that brings joy. Like the instructions for using oxygen masks on the airplane (remember those masks?), we need to put ours on first and breathe deeply so we have the capacity to then help others.

And we need to be the shamash — the helper candle — for one another. This is when the Rabbinical Assembly, USCJ, and our other movement partners are at our best. We can light the way for one another and offer strength, encouragement, and hope in challenging times. It’s true, as Rav says, that none of us alone has an endless reservoir of energy, but by reaching out to one another our collective capacity is surely multiplied when we need it most. That is how miracles happen.

May kindling our hanukkiyot this holiday remind us that we each have our limitations while also providing the inspiration to reach out and strengthen one another as we continue our leadership efforts in the months to come.

Please accept my wishes for a Festival of Lights that inspires and brings new energy to our sacred work together.

Hag Urim Sameah!


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