Are we, as a nation, headed in the right direction? I know it sounds like the opening of debates happening across our country, but it’s something more as well. “Are we heading in the right direction?” was the question that lay at the heart of the Jewish people’s national debate some 2,100 years ago.
“Are we, the Jews of the Land of Israel, moving in the right direction? Do we have the leadership we really want and need? How are outside powers exercising influence over us, and how do we feel about that?” As eerily relevant as those questions will sound to most Americans, they are the very questions that undergird the years-long war whose results are celebrated on Chanukah.
And no, this is not a partisan question. In fact, according to polls, more than 70 percent of Americans question whether we are going in the right direction or not, with the biggest uptick in that number coming from Republicans; in June, 60 percent of GOPers believed that we were heading in the right direction, but now only 42 percent share that positive feeling. Clearly, this question is on almost all of our minds, regardless of party affiliation.
The question of where we are headed is a national one, yet it’s one about which we, as contemporary Americans, can learn a thing or two from our experience as ancient Jews — at least from the sages of the Talmud, if not from those who fought the victorious battles and many miracles which Chanukah recalls. And for those preferring more contemporary sources of inspiration, you need look no further than what may be the best-known Chanukah song in America: Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Light One Candle.”
So this year, I want to invite all Jews and Americans to open a Chanukah present from Peter, Paul, Mary and the rabbis of old. It’s not simply a present but a gift — simultaneously ancient and modern — that each of us would love to receive, and which we each need to give one another, now more than ever.
“Light One Candle” taught millions of Americans that Chanukah celebrates the power of a single light to bring hope, pride, energy and empathy to our entire world. It reminded people that great light can emerge in even the darkest of times, and that lights lit in the distant past can continue to shine for us not only days, but even years after they were first lit. Similar timeless wisdom was shared by Talmudic sages 1,700 years ago.
Nine-branched menorahs are great, as is the custom of each person lighting their own chanukkiah. But the Talmud teaches, in Tractate Shabbat 21b, that the principle mitzvah of Chanukah is to light one light per household, per night. Why might the rabbis have “settled” for something that sounds so small, so limited and even kind of disappointing, when compared with the beauty and power of the nightly increasing lights of one, or even many, menorahs in any given home?
Perhaps the rabbis set the bar not so low, but so wisely, because it doesn’t actually take a great deal of light to chase away a great deal of darkness, and because any one of us can be the one to bring that light into our homes, our communities and our world.
We don’t have to agree about what light we need — as individuals, as Americans or as Jews — we just need to light. It need not be big or flashy, and we need not even worry about whether that light will grow with each passing day. We just need to add a bit of light. Just one candle, so to speak.
The song lifts up gratitude, endurance, freedom, peacemaking, strength, compassion, rejection of anger and discovery of joy — one particular enlightening value for each night of the holiday. Don’t like any of those? Pick another one. The chorus reminds us that even if we focus on just one, the light will not go out … as long as we can sing about the other ones as well.
What one light will you light to celebrate Chanukah this year? How can that light help more of us come to see our nation as heading in the right direction? How will your celebration of that light, leave room for those who choose a different one?
Answering the first two questions is the gift you can give yourself this Chanukah. Answering the last one is the gift you can give to others. Answering all three is how we all make sure the light never goes out.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is president of Clal–the National Jewish Center for Leadership and Learning.