Keeping Connected December 2023
I feel dumbstruck that Chanukkah starts in a week. To say that my sense of time has collapsed since Simchat Torah – October 7th, would be an understatement. The massacre that happened in Israel on that day, along with the videos of hostages being taken away by cheering terrorists, shook our world. I can only speak for myself, but the images and news stories from Israel and Gaza, of the pain on the faces of Israelis and Palestinians, has left me feeling shattered. Recently I tried to express to colleagues what I was thinking and feeling and I concluded by saying that it seems impossible to hold within myself all the conflicting emotions, truths, concerns, fear, anger, and hope at one time. From a spiritual and emotional perspective I sense that I, and perhaps all of us, were thrown into the darkness of winter, long before Chanukkah, the festival that traditionally marks the beginning of the season of dormancy and darkness.
I do not share these impressions with you to bring you down or depress you. In fact, it is with the opposite intent that I share my experience of the last seven weeks. When I described this sense of overwhelm with my colleagues, a dear friend who I consider one of my “rabbis”, shared a story told by Elie Wiesel. It moved me deeply and I was inspired to search it out on the internet. In true Jewish fashion I found two versions of the tale. I love them both, and since they each offer a slightly different teaching, I share them both with you.
One rendition is: “To illustrate, Elie Wiesel tells a story of how Simchat Torah was celebrated in the concentration camp of Buna, a sub camp of Auschwitz. But how does one celebrate Simchat Torah in a death camp? They had no food, no clothes and certainly no Torahs. Weisel wrote that they stood there looking at each other, no one was sure what to do, until the rabbi said, “It is Simchat Torah – we are obligated to celebrate, we must dance”. But dance, how? He was an old rabbi surrounded by a bunch of emaciated Jews. Indeed, they said to him, “We have no Torahs to dance with? Where in a death camp will we find a Torah?” So the rabbi approached a small starving child and asked, “How old are you, child?” “Thirteen”, replied the boy. “Have you studied Torah?”, the rabbi asked. “Some,” replied the boy. “What is the first word of the Torah?”, asked the rabbi. “Bereishit”, replied the boy. “Good” said the rabbi smiling and he proceeded to lift up the boy who weighed practically nothing – and carried him in his arms like a Torah and began to dance and sing. Soon the others formed a circle around the rabbi and they began to pass the boy from one to another – embracing him – singing and dancing, celebrating Gd’s gift of the Torah.”
Rabbi Jeff Salkin shares this version of the tale beginning with a unique preface. “Consider: In medieval France, there was a ceremony for Jewish children who were a month old. The child was placed upon a bound text of the Hebrew Bible, and the parents would place a quill in his or her hand.
Why on the Hebrew Bible? So that the child would embody that teaching. Why a quill? So that the child would become a scribe, writing his or her own chapter in Jewish history.
Elie Wiesel tells of a group of Jews in Auschwitz who wanted to celebrate Simchat Torah. But they lacked a Torah scroll.
A man asked a boy: ‘Do you remember what you’ve learned?’ ‘Yes,’ said the boy. ‘I remember Shema Yisrael.’ ‘Shema Yisrael is enough,’ said the man. And he lifted the boy from the ground and began dancing with him, as though he was the Torah.
‘Never before,’ Wiesel later wrote, ‘had Jews celebrated Simchat Torah with such fervor.’”
These two versions of the same tale reminded me that Judaism teaches us to “Choose Life” and to always remember that even in a time of darkness or a place of devoid of light like Auschwitz, we can and must still dance, embrace Torah and attempt to elevate hope.
For me, this is what Chanukkah is all about. The Rabbis of the Talmud had a debate. On the first night of Chanukkah should we light 8 candles and then subtract one light each night or should we start with one candle and then add an additional candle each night of the festival. The Rabbis settled upon the second tradition and in doing so, affirmed our ability but also our responsibility to increase light even as the darkness of winter increases.
Just as the Jews in Wiesel’s story danced, so too is this a time for us to bring light into our lives and the lives of others with intentionality and yes, even enthusiasm. A friend of mine recently shared that her spirit needed to light not just one of her Chanukah menorah’s this year; but all the one’s she owns. She needed to visually and spiritually, feel as much light and hope as possible.
This year, perhaps more so than ever, we all need to bring in the light. Bring in the light by joining with community. Come and celebrate Chanukkah with us at the synagogue. Let us bring in the light by sharing with others who have less than we do. Bring the light by being a light to others. I am not a Pollyanna and I know that the challenges we face will not magically disappear in the weeks ahead. What I am saying is that we need to find fortitude, courage, endurance, and strength in the days ahead. No matter how complex or painful the problems the world faces, let us also remember that Torah teaches us to elevate life and bring light into the world.
With light and love,
Rabbi Shoshana Perry