We are a many-menorahed family. In addition to the menorahs that our kids made in nursery school and kindergarten, and which we used for years, we also possess a blue motorcycle menorah, a black bicycle menorah, a heavy, artsy-fartsy multicolored menorah, and a cluster of silver and bronze menorahs which my husband bumped into at a Judaica liquidation sale.
It’s about 18″ by 20″, a beautiful, elaborate, silver menorah that was given to us in 2001 when my husband and I were two of the honorees at the Upper West Side Chabad nursery school’s annual dinner. In the past, looking at it recalled the warmth and genuine goodness and Godliness that I associated with Chabad.
Our youngest son attended the Chabad nursery school and, like so many others here on the Upper West Side, we felt absolutely embraced when we walked into the doors of the building. An inquiry of, “How are you?” to the teachers or the rabbis inevitably brought the response, “Thank God.” Meaning, “Thank God, I’m okay.” I unconsciously picked up the automatic “Thank God”, and am wont to slip it into conversations on everything from, “You like the soup? Thank God!” to “College applications are over, thank God!” I hated to leave–why couldn’t I sit on Morah [Teacher] Esther’s lap, too?
This year, when I look at that menorah, I think about the Chabad House in Mumbai and the nine Jews who were tortured and killed, including Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his five-months-pregnant wife, Rivki. There are about 4,000 Chabad emissary families in 72 countries, and they are on a mission. That mission is simply to provide Jewish life for Jews in far-flung diaspora communities, and to reveal God to these disparate Jews. To that end, in India they offer a home and Shabbat dinner to Israeli backpackers, and in the northwest corner of Connecticut, they drop off challah on Friday night, including with it the Torah portion for the week and its interpretations, for our non-observant friends, Irwin and Mary.
Like our ancestor Abraham, Chabad’s doors are open to the stranger, for they genuinely recognize the Divine in every human being, in every Jew. They see past everyone’s exteriors: past the Chanel shoes; past our tight jeans and sweaters; past the piercings and the tattoos; past the Wall Street suits and ties and the pony-tailed hair. It takes some of us much longer to see past their exteriors -the men’s black suits and moustaches and beards and the women’s wigs and long, modest dresses–I guess because we are more prejudiced than are they, and we are more willing to separate the world into Us and Them.
Chabad rabbis and the Chabad community pop up in places you might not expect them. The largest Passover Seder held in the world is sponsored by Chabad in Katmandu. It started as a small group almost twenty years ago and was a means of accommodating Israelis who were backpacking through the Far East after army service, but the Seder became so popular that many people plan their trips around it! Now, it can draw as many as 1500 people, many of whom are probably not observant, and who may or may not know the Passover prayers, but all of whom are equally accepted, unconditionally, by Chabad.
Now, it’s Chanukah, a word that means “dedication.” The history behind the holiday is all tied up in battles between the Greeks and the Jews, as well as between Jews and Jews: the Jews who wanted to assimilate with the Greeks and let go of Judaism versus those who didn’t. When Antiochus, the Syrian ruler, plundered the Temple in Jerusalem then dedicated it to Zeus in 167 BCE, it prompted an uprising amongst a small group of Jews in the countryside. Eventually, they managed to reclaim the Temple which they re-dedicated to God by lighting the Temple’s menorah.
It was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Perhaps not so coincidentally, this corresponded to Saturnalia, the Greeks’ celebration of the winter solstice, an eight day holiday known for drinking, gambling and gift giving, one in which the boundaries between master and slave were momentarily set aside, a time in which people attempted to banish the darkness with bonfires and candles, and looked forward to the days getting longer and sunlight returning, and with it, new life.
You can read all sorts of meaning–political, spiritual or personal–into Chanukah. For me, in the past, Chanukah was a time to sing songs with the kids, mediate skirmishes among the kids on whose turn it was to light candles, make myself crazy buying meaningful gifts for all eight nights, and to stuff myself with jelly donuts. This year, looking at that big menorah has changed everything. Now, I’m thinking about dedication, and the dedication of Chabad worldwide.
I think about how Chabad would never need a holiday that breaks down barriers between slave and master, because barriers between human beings, and especially between Jews, don’t exist. I think about the many conversations I’ve had with the Chabad rabbis, their wives, the teachers and others I’ve gotten to know. In passing on the sidewalk, or bumping into them at the kosher butcher or catching up with them at a bat mitzvah, I’ve talked to them about the usual surface stuff, but very often I’ve jumped right into a question about the korporet (sacrifice of a chicken) ceremony before Yom Kippur or the meaning of oil on Chanukah.
One time I bumped into Morah Pearl on my street (Morah Esther’s sister), and it was my birthday and I said, you know, I wasn’t going to say anything, but I want you to know how happy it makes me to see you on my birthday. Whereupon she smiled her big, radiant smile and she threw her arms around me and gave me a wonderful hug and told me that she feels birthdays are special because it gives us the opportunity to thank Hashem [God] for our existence and also because on that day the soul reaches its highest spiritual potential and we have the power to effect change in our lives. Ever since, I’ve recalled her words on my birthday, and have passed this belief on to many of my friends.
Rabbis talk often about darkness and light–the Torah is a light, we are all sparks of divine light. At one time, Chanukah was known as the “Festival of Lights”, not as “dedication”. For as much as the selfless souls at Chabad have dedicated themselves to the Jewish world, I dedicate this to my friends at Chabad, who have lit a spark in my heart, and to Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, and the other victims murdered in Mumbai. May their families be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
This Chanukah, I join my friends at Chabad in asking you to pledge something–your prayers, acts of charity or kindness, lighting of candles–in honor of those who perished in this attack in Mumbai. In dedicating our individual lights to God’s altar, may we continue to pierce the dark.