45 years ago, Rabbi Norman Lamm, zt”l, delivered a sermon on Hanukkah that could have been written for a pandemic year.
“I do not underestimate the gravity of the situation – although I believe it is not as terrible as most of us feel. But I believe that 3,500 years of experience in the course of history should have taught us something about how to act and react when it is dark outside.”*
When Rabbi Lamm gave this sermon in 1975, the trauma and wounds of the Yom Kippur War were still fresh in Israel. The Arab states’ oil embargo had threatened the economies of the West. The US-Israel alliance was showing alarming signs of erosion.
In remarking on the fragility of the Jewish state and the Diaspora, he notes that the Talmud teaches that the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah candles applies only after sundown. He goes on to make a powerful observation.
“The Hanukkah light has no function during the daytime. When the sun shines, there is no need for candles. When things are going well, faith does not represent a particularly great achievement. The mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah candle applies only when it’s dark outside. …Jews have learned throughout history that when life is difficult on the outside, you must build up your inner resources…when it is dark outside, light a candle.”
To light the hanukkiah in 2020 is not just an act of loyalty to an ancient tradition. It’s a demonstration of our refusal to be resigned to the darkness of present times. I expect, like me, every community member reading this message has struggled with challenges and difficulties they never could have previously imagined. For far too many, 2020 will be remembered as a year of pain and loss.
So too, it will be a year in which we were reminded – through countless caring acts by neighbours and often strangers – of what it means to be a part of the Jewish people. And members of a Toronto community that defines itself by the light we add to the lives of each other – and the world around us.
When we gather with our children around the hanukkiah tomorrow night, it won’t feel the same without relatives and friends by our side. But Hanukkah was made for moments like these. And as Jews, we know how to react when it’s dark outside.
Chag Hanukkah Sameach,
President & CEO
UJA Federation of Greater Toronto