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Don't Let The Light Go Out

For the past week, despite the fact that it’s February, I’ve had Chanukah on my mind.  Over the last week, I was away in California with my kids, my brother, and my niece, for a little February break siblings/cousins trip to visit my mom who lives out there. I rented a minivan to make it easier for us to all travel around together, which meant I had the pleasure of my 2.5 year old niece Ruthie as a passenger, who loves to play DJ, calling out her favorite songs for us to play. On this trip, Ruthie wanted one song and one song only, over and over again:

Dreidel dreidel dreidel, I made it out of clay. 

Chanukah in February? 

Why not, I suppose. 

The song is quite the ear worm, and so for the rest of the week, it’s been stuck in my head— reminding me of course, of other Chanukah songs. 

From Dreidel dreidel, to a personal favorite, Light One Candle, by Peter, Paul, and Mary with the refrain: 

Don't let the light go out!

It's lasted for so many years!

Don't let the light go out!

Let it shine through our hope and our tears.

As the trip drew to a close, and I started thinking about coming home, and getting ready to be with you all for Shabbat, I had that that song in my mind as I looked at this week’s Torah portion, parashat Tetzaveh. 

We read in this week’s Torah portion a whole array of commandments and obligations that the Israelites would need to fulfill in order to worship in the mishkan; much of the portion focuses on the vestmans that Aaron and the priests would need to wear in order to perform their temple service. 

And, notably– the portion hones in on the importance of light in what would become a holy space for the Israelites, with the verses surrounding the instructions for the Ner Tamid, the eternal light. 

וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה ׀ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד׃

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, in order to keep the light burning continually.

Tamid, usually translated as forever or always, has a slightly more nuanced understanding here— after all, how could a flame endure forever without kindling? The rabbis of the generations read tamid then to mean continually, or regularly, explaining that each and every night, the flame itself would need tending. 

11th century Italian commentator Sforno emphasizes this detail: 

“The people should not think that donating oil for the lamp now was the only time that this commandment would be actual. It would have to be replaced from time to time as the supply kept would become depleted on an ongoing basis.” 

A ner tamid, an eternal light is not an act of magic or luck; but rather, an act of presence: an affirmation of the presence of a holy community, committed to doing the work.  While it symbolizes God’s presence, its physical existence depended on the community— the first part of that verse is clear: it is the Israelites who will be responsible for bringing the oil. Without the community, there is no light. 

With this text in mind, and the soundtrack of Peter Paul and Mary playing in the background, I can’t help but wonder how that Eternal Light of ours is doing right now. 

As I look at the world around us, I am fearful that we have allowed that eternal light of ours to flicker. That in the fractured and fractious world we live in, we have become too divided to focus on the task of bringing that oil, and kindling that flame. 

The Eternal Light is both physical and symbolic of our communal mission. 

Light allows us to see, and to be seen.  

We shine light into dark places, 

so that harm and violence and hatred may not hide in the shadows.

We kindle lights to bring warmth into our homes and into our communal spaces. 

For the last 140 days, we have watched as the brokenness in Israel has splintered outward, into the diaspora and around the world. The heartache, the anger, and the fear should bind us together, but instead we have become cynical and skeptical of anyone who directs their heartache, anger and fear in a different direction than we do. 

We have fallen prey to the falsehood of either/or thinking: 

Either you are pro Israel or pro Palestinian. 

Either you are anti Hamas or you are anti Netanyahu.

Either you are calling for a ceasefire, or you are calling for more war. 

The circles can’t overlap. You’re either with us or against us. 

And yet, it has become harder and harder to decipher who the “us” is. 

There’s been a lot of talk about how there is no plan for a “day after”.

Those who spent the last year and a half protesting in the streets for democracy in Israel now find themselves confronted with a war mongering government threatening to re-occupy Gaza. 

Those who have advocated for a two state solution, and continue to advocate for a path toward shared society, find themselves confronted with the reality that Hamas has promised to repeat October 7th over and over again, until there are no more Israelis to harm. 

The families of the hostages have taken to the streets, raised their voices in fury, have begged and pleaded for an “all for all” deal, and instead, have been met with a government focused solely on destroying Hamas, as though it were possible to destroy an idea 

And for all of us who love Israel– who are truly ohavei Zion, the time has come for us to acknowledge and speak the truth: there is no “day after” that will be won with bombs or guns. The staggering numbers of dead bodies will not bring us peace, no matter how many Hamas terrorists are killed. 

And beneath the rubble, beneath the righteousness of the mission when it began four months ago, is the truth, that there are still 132 hostages who have not been rescued by force. It speaks to the divisions in our broader Jewish community right now to admit that I have been so scared to say this out loud. To give voice to the painful truth that it is time for Israel to change course; to bring the remaining hostages home and find a bilateral end to this war. As Yifat, the cousin of Shiri Bibas, the mother of baby Kfir and four year old Ariel who all remain in Gaza said this week, “we won’t be able to live here with a monument to the kidnapped people we could have saved”.

Those words linger in the air painfully; and our souls can only bear it for so much longer. 

The stakes have seemingly never been higher.

We talk a great deal about Jewish joy here at Hevreh; but that does not mean we ignore the reality of Jewish pain. And there is a lot of Jewish pain in the world right now too.  And perhaps we have not been clear enough, that Jewish pain comes in different forms. 

It comes from knowing the brutality, terror, and sexual violence that Hamas reigned on October 7th. 

It comes from knowing the trauma and fear that the hostages have suffered and continue to suffer.

It comes from knowing that our nieces and nephews and friends and cousins have bravely served their country, standing in harm's way as they fight a war that they did not ask for. 

It comes from knowing that here in the U.S. and around the world, antisemitism has gotten worse; Jews attacked on the way to synagogue, businesses boycotted, Jews killed for being visibly Jewish. 

And it also comes from knowing that more war, more suffering, more dead and injured and orphaned children in Gaza, will not bring the hostages home, nor will it bring peace. 

It comes from knowing that there is a time for war, and there is a time for peace— and right now, time is running out for us to figure out how to cross that bridge without the loss of more lives. 

And so, I am brought back to Torah. 

When God commands the Israelites to kindle a ner tamid, God is inviting us to come closer; to share in the obligation to bring more light into the world. In order to remain bound together as a covenanted community, it will be upon us to ensure this perpetual light; to continually kindle it,  tamid— forever. 

Which makes me think, maybe my little niece Ruthie was on to something, wanting to listen to Chanukah music after all.

Perhaps the message for us at this moment is more than just the obvious one. Yes; Chanukah is a story of Jewish unity and strength; of overcoming the foes who seek our destruction.

But it’s also gives us an answer to what we are praying for and yearning for and working for and fighting for right now:

Chanukah tells us the story of the day after. 

Chanukah reminds us of what we do when the fighting is over. 

We read in the book of Maccabees that after all of the violence, after the war, came a period of lamentations and rebuilding, and then- finally of rededication. 

On  the “day after”, Judah Maccabee set about rekindling the eternal lamp, in order to l’ha-eir ba’mikdash; to give light to their holy Temple. 

We rekindle the Ner Tamid.

We find the oil—- even if just a measly cruse with enough for one night. 

We light fires. 

We allow the light to shine brightly- illuminating the faces of our community. 

My hope on this Shabbat is that the time will come swiftly for welcoming home those who remain in captivity, for rebuilding, and for rededicating ourselves as B’nai Yisrael: the children of Israel. 

And the deepest prayer I can add in this unique moment in time, is that when that day comes- God willing soon—when we rededicate ourselves to the holy task of lighting that flame, is that we will look around and see reflected the faces of our brothers and sisters. 

We can't let the light go out. It's lasted for so many years.

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