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December 14, 2011 By:
The Lights of Chanukah Can Let the Sunshine In
As the days shorten and the nights grow long, we seek out sources of light and warmth to sustain us.
We bundle up in our warmest clothes, make hot meals and turn up the heat in our homes. It is no coincidence that during this season, many cultures and religions celebrate festivals of light.
The need for light in times of darkness is not only a physical need, but an emotional and spiritual one as well.
Several years ago during Chanukah, I led a group for people struggling with loss and illness. We were seated in a circle, the lights were dimmed, and each person had an unlit menorah in front of him or her. One by one, we lit candles and told the story of something that gave us hope and strength in our lives.
One woman spoke about the kindness of neighbors who helped her with yard work when she wasn't feeling well.
Another reflected on the group at her synagogue that organized meals and transportation. One man lit a candle as he described an afternoon spent playing with his 4-year-old grandson while another recalled a long walk in the woods with a friend looking at the autumn leaves.
As we shared tales of courage and compassion, the room filled with light.
Chanukah provides an opportunity to reflect on the relationships and activities that illuminate the spirit. Darkness is an inevitable part of life's journey; none of us will escape the experience of heartbreak and suffering.
What keeps us going are the glimpses of light we encounter along the way.
As a chaplain, I provide pastoral care and religious support to Jews in hospitals, nursing homes and other institutional settings.
One man I met during a visit was lying in a hospital bed with tubes attached everywhere; he was struggling physically, afraid for the future.
But the most important thing on his mind was his family.
He pointed out their pictures on his wall and the get-well cards his son's classmates had made. He was concerned about all of the extra work that his wife had taken on during his illness.
He told me a funny story about teaching his teenage daughter to drive. Even though it was at times difficult for him to speak, his face lit up as he talked about his family.
At the end of our visit, I offered to "make a Misheberach," to say a prayer on his behalf. When I asked him what I should pray for, he said, "Rabbi, please pray for my family."
It was moving to see that in the midst of his pain and fear, he was most concerned for his family's well being. He was focused on what was most important to him, and, in the midst of his ordeal, the love that his family shared with each other sustained him.
Rays of Hope
When we witness the true fragility of human existence, we become profoundly grateful for the webs of love and friendship that keep us going; the activities that give our life meaning. In these dark periods, we see more clearly than usual the lights that shine before us.
Of course, most people struggle to find the light in times of suffering; sometimes the pain is too much, the loss feels unbearable, or our struggles overwhelm us.
If we are lucky, there are moments of reprieve. We find untapped sources of inner strength, the willingness to accept our vulnerability and receive the support of those around us -- and the faith to continue.
One rabbinic teaching about Chanukah suggests that the miracle we celebrate is not that one day's supply of oil lasted for eight days; the true miracle is that with only one day's supply of oil, someone had the faith to relight the menorah and believe that it would last.
One person had the trust and hope to take action.
At times of crisis, each step we take forward is an act of faith; a nes gadol, a great miracle.
As we celebrate Chanukah this year, may the candles that we light remind us of the daily miracles that sustain us, give our lives purpose and enable us to find courage.
Rabbi Elisa Goldberg is the director of Jewish Community Services at the Jewish Family and Children's Service and president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.