(Photo: Nicola Green)
Chanukah and The Hope We Build Together
Personal Reflections on the Life and Teachings of Rabbi Sacks
BY JONNY LIPCZER
Rabbi Sacks was given many accolades, honors and titles. He was a lord and a professor. But the title that was most important to him was “Rabbi” – teacher. Because teachers, education, synagogues and schools are the things that kept the Jewish spirit alive and Jewish values burning throughout the centuries in an everlasting light.
He was passionate about education, and he always made time for young people in particular. In the classroom, he’d stoop down to their level, even sitting with them on the floor.
A few years ago, my then seven-year-old son asked me a question about one of the biblical personalities. I didn’t know the answer, but I knew who would. I emailed Rabbi Sacks, and a few days later, I received a response by way of a WhatsApp voice note, spoken in his characteristically eloquent style, and at a level that my son could understand. He had a unique ability to be able to direct a message to any audience, regardless of their age or background – and he embraced technology in ways few religious leaders have, so that he could be more accessible to the people that matter.
Over the last two years we have missed Rabbi Sacks’ voice of moral clarity, his leadership and his wisdom. During these turbulent times in which we are living, his perspective on current affairs would be profoundly affirming and filled with hope.
In the dark winter months, the Chanukah lights are one of the great symbols of Jewish hope, illuminating the message of survival against all odds.
The Greeks, Rabbi Sacks said, gave the world the concept of tragedy, while Jews gave it the idea of hope. You can’t have Judaism without hope.
While discussing a fascinating Talmudic argument (Shabbat 22a) about Chanukah, Rabbi Sacks drew out an incredible message of hope:
Can you take one Chanukah light to light another? Usually, of course, we take an extra light, the shamash, and use it to light all the candles. But suppose we don’t have one. Can we light the first candle and then use it to light the others?
Two great Sages of the third century, Rav and Shmuel, disagreed. Rav said ‘No’. Shmuel said ‘Yes’. Normally we have a rule that when Rav and Shmuel disagree, the law follows Rav. There are only three exceptions, and this is one.
Why did Rav say you may not take one Chanukah candle to light the others?
Because, says the Talmud, you diminish the first candle. Inevitably you spill some of the wax or the oil. And Rav says: Don’t do anything that would diminish the light of the first.
But Shmuel disagrees, and the law follows Shmuel. Why?
The best way of answering that is to think of two Jews: both religious, both committed, both living Jewish lives. One says: I must not get involved with Jews who are less religious than me, because if I do, my own standards will fall. I’ll keep less. My light will be diminished. That’s the view of Rav.
The other says: No. When I use the flame of my faith to light a candle in someone else’s life, my Jewishness is not diminished, it grows, because there is now more Jewish light in the world. When it comes to spiritual goods as opposed to material goods, the more I share, the more I have. If I share my knowledge, or faith, or love with others, I won’t have less; I may even have more. That’s the view of Shmuel, and that is how the law was eventually decided.
This is the message of hope. The hope that if we work together – rather than in isolation – and share our Judaism, we can make things better. We can take the flame of our faith and help set other souls on fire.
In To Heal a Fractured World, Rabbi Sacks describes the difference between optimism and hope: “Optimism and hope are not the same. Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to hope. The Hebrew Bible is not an optimistic book. It is, however, one of the great literatures of hope.”
If we work together, we can make things better. That, says Rabbi Sacks, is hope. If you lift someone else, you yourself are lifted.
Chanukah is our celebration of the end of the Greek occupation of Jerusalem and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty to Jerusalem. The word Chanukah, from the word chanuch, means rededication – which is what the Maccabees did to the Temple. Chanukah is also connected to the word chinuch, meaning education. Rabbi Sacks explained that what we rededicated was not a physical building – the Temple – but rather living embodiments of Judaism, namely our children, our students, the people to whom we teach and hand on our heritage and values.
Those of us who grew up in youth movements or student organizations felt his dedication to education and his encouragement of young people even more acutely. Rabbi Sacks would publish booklets specifically with them in mind, such as the Little Books of Big Questions for students, and the Letters to the Next Generation. He would regularly make visits to university campuses, and he was often a guest at Bnei Akiva, during good as well as challenging times, offering strength and encouragement when it was most necessary.
In 2002, I led Bnei Akiva in the UK. Just weeks into the start of the year we heard news from Israel that a suicide bomber had detonated his belt on a bus in Tel Aviv, and that one of our members, Yoni Jesner hy”d, was on that bus. Yoni was rushed to hospital, and we quickly arranged an evening of prayer at our London headquarters. Yoni was still in intensive care, but we knew there was no hope.
As news spread of the gathering, Rabbi Sacks called me to say he would like to be with us. He didn’t wait to be asked; he knew this is where he was needed. He addressed the packed room, giving strength to Yoni’s many friends and his wider Bnei Akiva family. It was a challenging moment for Bnei Akiva, and in Rabbi Sacks we had a leader we so desperately needed to light the way. His presence with us that night was a tremendous source of comfort and hope.
Whenever Rabbi Sacks visited Israel, I would invite him to speak to Bnei Akiva students on their gap year. He never once refused. On one occasion, when he had finished speaking, he sat down, turned to me, and asked, “Was that okay?” This was one of the Jewish world’s greatest orators, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, and he was asking me if he spoke well! This spoke volumes about his humility. He was a foremost leader of the Jewish community, but recognized that I was the leader of this group, and so my opinion mattered to him. In three short words, I learned from him that it is not the honors we receive that matter, but the honor we give.
Rabbi Sacks is missed every day. May his voice continue to illuminate the world with light and hope, and may his memory and legacy be an everlasting blessing.
Jonny Lipczer is Director of Communications at The Rabbi Sacks Legacy.