On October 27, when the news of the murderous attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh first broke across the media, I didn’t think of Hanukkah. At that moment I could only think of the shocking loss of 11 lives, the senselessness of violence, and how hatred and prejudice impacts everything it touches.
But with the bright blue lights of Hanukkah slated to shine from the windows of homes and businesses of our own Jewish community here in Maryland, I find myself thinking of that synagogue in Pittsburgh—and realizing how important a story about faithfulness in the face of adversity truly is.
The story of Hanukkah is that against all odds the Maccabees, a small and fearless band of warriors, fought against an occupying army that tried to force the Jewish people to abandon their faith and accept a Greek way of life in its place. These brave liberators drove the occupiers from their land and set out to relight the menorah in the Temple, the center of their religious practice. They could find just one small cruse of oil that was ceremonially pure with which to properly light the candles—enough for just one day.
Miraculously, during the time that it took for more oil to be properly prepared, and seemingly in response to their faithfulness, the oil lasted eight days—long enough for ceremonial oil to be produced and the candles in the Temple permanently relit.
The distinctive candelabra with nine blue candles that will soon appear in windows throughout the community commemorates Hanukkah, a Hebrew word which means “dedication.” The eight-day festival commences on December 2 this year. For those for whom Hanukkah has religious significance, it is a time for celebrating the goodness of God and His abundant care, and to reflect on this ancient story of courage, perseverance, and faithfulness.
But as Hanukkah comes this year, I am thinking of the three congregations that were holding services at the Tree of Life Synagogue and the impact the horrific killings had on all of them. How will they light the Hanukkah menorah this year? I am thinking about how any of us respond to violence and hatred.
I am thinking about the “Shamash,” the little candle that is used to light the other candles of the menorah of Hanukkah, and how each night the light grows brighter. And I’m thinking that even for those of us who are not Jewish, we can each be a sort of Shamash candle—the one that lights the others. The hope that we share across many faiths is that we can each be part of the light that illuminates the lives of others.
The blue lights of Hanukkah are symbolic of the unquenchable hopefulness that lights the human spirit, the faith that ennobles all of our communities, and the conviction that against all odds the candle that renews our hearts and lights our way forward in the world will keep burning. Even in times of tragedy and adversity.
The prophet Isaiah proclaims, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2, NIV). May this always be so.