Lighting the Light

Lessons in hope, courage, purity, and faith, from the Maccabees and the Hanukkah miracles.

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Seeing the Sacred Everywhere

Every moment of life presents us with a choice in how we perceive; do we see disappointment and defeat or opportunity and hope? I am filled with wonder by what people have managed to achieve. In situations of conflict it is often women who lead the way back to the appreciation that the enemy are people, too. Modern communications have enabled mothers to cross battle zones and find mothers on the other side who have also lost a husband or child. The common humanity they discover transcends the power of war.

There are teachers who work with sick or maltreated chil­dren because they believe that the power of love will awaken the inborn creativity that lies within us all. There are caregivers who work with the dying because they trust that beyond pain and degradation lie acceptance and reconciliation. None of these people see only ruins; what they perceive is the human image, God's temple, restored.

Behind this lies an earlier question: What is it that gives us the capaci­ty to look at the world in this way? Where is the oil that burns with the light that enables us to see the sacred everywhere? For, as the Sefat Emet [Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905, a Hasidic sage] taught, "There is such a very small point in every per­son which even now belongs to God."

There is a vessel within each of us, the contents of which are simply not susceptible to contamination, a part of us which remains eternally pure. It is there that we must go to seek the oil that burns with a pure and sacred flame. The difficulty is to find it. That is the inner meaning of the Maccabees' search among the ruins of the Temple for the one jar that was still intact, sealed with the High Priest's seal.

Purity Within

The Talmud, in recounting the brief story of how the Maccabees found and lit the oil, suggests that there were other jars. But they were not pure; the High Priest's seal was broken. In the same way, our lives contain many things that burn.

Anger burns. Of course, righteous anger sometimes leads us to stand up against wrong, but even justified anger often simply con­sumes its victim. I have sometimes had to say to people who are angry that they may indeed be right--they have been exceedingly badly treated--but who has become the main victim of their anger if not themselves? It will devour them, a second kind of suffering, but it won't in the least affect the person who has wronged them.

Greed also burns; in our society its flames are constantly fueled. We are lured by countless incitements into the heat of our own desires. We do not see clearly by the light of such fires.

Like the Maccabees, we too must search the precincts of our inner self for what lies buried there. Then we may come to know by the testimony of our own heart that there is a part of us which nothing can contaminate. We have a certain purity of being that cannot be sullied. Light it, and it bums with a sacred radiance. Just as Midas's touch turned everything to gold, so the spirit has the power to reveal the spirit in everything that lives.

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Jonathan Wittenberg

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg serves as rabbi of New North London Synagogue. His other publications include Three Pillars of Judaism: A Search for Faith and Values and The Laws of Life: A Guide to Traditional Jewish Practice at Times of Bereavement.