A chance to kindle personal and public possibilities

  • AdinaRothNew
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” said Martin Luther King Jr. In the mid-1950s in America with all the horrors of institutionalised racism, it took leadership, courage and spiritual attunement for King to trust that the eventual twists and turns of human forces in the tunnel of time tend towards justice. Yet, if we pause to consider it, King’s bold declaration isn’t dissimilar to the message of Chanukah.
by ADINA ROTH | Dec 12, 2019

Chanukah is borne of a wonderful juxtaposition between a seven-branched menorah which was lit daily in an internal space in the temple, and a nine-branched chanukiah to be lit for eight days of the year in public spaces, at the windows and walls of our homes.

In helping us to distinguish between the notion of a private and a public lighting, Rabbi Zadok of Lublin said that in times of Jewish persecution, it’s halachically permitted to light the chanukiah in a private space. This is because even when it’s felt that light cannot brighten the darkness of our world, we should always remember that light should brighten the innerness of our souls.

When change in the public sphere seems remote and out of reach, there is always an internal and personal light which can and must be kindled.

Rabbi Zadok’s affirming of the individual’s responsibility is reflected in the thoughts of psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. In the apocalyptic turmoil which characterised the years preceding World War II, Jung questioned the capacity of the collective to transform. For Jung, like the Rebbe of Lublin, the potential for change needed to be located in the work of each individual to discern her internal capacities for good and evil. In his little book, The Undiscovered Self, Jung wrote, “I am neither spurred on by excessive optimism nor in love with high ideals, but am merely concerned with the fate of the individual human being – that infinitesimal unit on whom a world depends.”

Yet, Chanukah isn’t simply a celebration of the individual’s ability to transform. Chanukah celebrates, in a Martin-Luther-King-like manner, the unlikely shifting of the arc of history by a small group of individuals – the mighty Greek army was forced to its knees by a small group of Jewish guerrilla farm boys!

Yet, expecting miracles in the South African environment might be hard for us this holiday season. Indeed, in South Africa, as many of us wind our way towards the coast for a much-needed break, the joy of holiday is accompanied by more sobering concerns on the macro level, namely the very ability of our country to transform itself.

Many of us are struggling to maintain faith in our ruling party to sort out the endless challenges of South Africa 25 years post-apartheid. While talking to a business-man the other day, I was affronted by a list of quantifiable barriers towards South Africa succeeding: Eskom, the Road Accident Fund, South African Airways. “If you just add up the billions that have been lost, there isn’t even the remotest chance that South Africa can pull itself out of this stupor for the next 20 years,” he said.

The “reality” he hit me with had the effect of rendering me mute. How does one respond? Then I thought to myself, “and yet, here we are … we have meaningful work, beautiful schools, an engaged community, close family, and special friends”. In spite of everything going on, in the realm of the personal, we are able to somehow find our way and in some small manner contribute to the larger society. But my personal optimism felt dwarfed by his more pessimistic – albeit realistic – approach to the macro challenges.

Yet, if we return to our chanukiah, we are reminded that the Jewish narrative affirms an internal light and a more public light. The chanukiah points to the necessary and fundamental work of our personal lives that needs kindling in our private sphere every single day. It’s the light of good faith, optimism, a commitment to doing good and spreading warmth in our spheres of influence, our homes, our friendships, our businesses, and our communities.

This idea is reinforced by the Sefat Emet, who says that when the Maccabees found a tiny vial of oil which miraculously lasted for eight days, this drop of oil also represented the Jewish spirit which was radically reduced by the culturally oppressive Greeks. With our spirit almost snuffed out, the miracle of the menorah represented not only a physical light, but a revival of the Jewish spirit which burned for eight days, representing a return to spiritual wholeness. It’s this light of optimistic spirit which should be particularly cherished in South Africa right now.

The public celebration of the light of the chanukiah points to change and impact on a more collective level. It’s not always easy to believe that our society can shift towards the good. But, let’s remember that the rabbis in our tradition connected the chanukiah to personal and collective potential for transformation. They lived in times of equal turmoil to ours, with perhaps more reason to feel negative. Yet they passed on a message of bold hope.

If people are feeling pessimistic this holiday period, let’s use this time to focus on kindling the lights of our souls, that light where we have the capacity to influence and make change. Let’s also remember that the Jewish story audaciously connects this inner light to a larger narrative, to a chanukiah, which tells the story of how global change and transformation are always possible.

  • Adina Roth runs B’tocham Education in Johannesburg, teaching courses to B’neimitzvah and tanach and midrash to adults. She is also a Melton educator and a clinical psychologist in private practice. She is currently Limmud SA national chair.

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