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Seeking Peace, Pursuing Justice

Seek peace...and pursue it : Psalm 34:15

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By Stephanie Kolin

DEC 10, 2001

I could probably learn more about life from watching two chanukiot burn down than I could in a lifetime of intellectual pursuit. These are the things I noticed from watching the candles burn down on this first night of Chanukah in Israel.

Each one casts light, not onto itself, because it is too far underneath the flame to catch much of the glow. Rather, it casts light on the other chanukiah while surrounding surfaces are licked by the light. All that is touched by the small fire shines with the light of strength and endurance, of pain and triumph, of losses and wins. Not the losses and wins of battles, but the losses and wins between peace and the faltering of that peace. The flame flickers and you think it is just about out and then it finds some force, some cache of wax or just the mere will to go on and it burns for minutes more, each minute an opportunity to try again. If we let our flames go out, and just give up, then we will never know what it is we missed. So eventually, the candle goes out, not because of a set time, or because of the wind, but on its own terms, from tiredness or maybe because things naturally come to an end.

But tomorrow night, I will stand and not only light the flames again, not only re-ignite tonight's hope, but I will add to it and refuse to let its occasional going out let me lose hope. And every night that we learn that things end, that struggle for hope and peace and bringing light in to the dark places has obstacles and has its rough spots, we go back to that same exact place and light the same flames again. Only every night, we add more. We give ourselves more opportunity. We give ourselves more light to work with. Our Chanukah fire is not supposed to be used for anything but the commemoration, for the future and for the past. We do not read by them or watch T.V. or even just use them as the light in the room. But we do use them for something. They are symbols of the light we cast on others when we maintain our sense of hope and eternal possibility.

The more light we have, and the more light we make, then greater is the chance that we will see something in the glow that light casts around us. As we add a new candle every night, we see the circle of light around us widen, bringing to view things we may not have seen before, possibilities, solutions, doorways. Paths that were once closed to us now seem almost inviting because of the light we were brave enough to cast on them. Jews have had to be brave to light chanukiot through history. Today we won't be killed or beaten for lighting our chanukiot in the windows. But we do have to be brave enough to say that it can still mean something.

Israelis fight over the secular or religious nature of the holiday. Songs tell of either the small bit of oil or they declare that no miracle happened to us. Each political party assigns its own meaning to this very socially constructed and ever mutating holiday. Their arguments are legitimate, interesting even. But the bravery lies within what the Jew does with the candles, not what s/he calls them or how s/he denies another's belief of their symbolism. I sat and watched our candles burn all the way down tonight, watching the room grow darker as they flickered and then became completely bright again in the excited moments before death, a moment of strength that came to remind me that all is not futile and it is in my hands to relight those flames tomorrow night. What flickers today can return with great warmth tomorrow.

I watched our chanukiot turn into silhouettes, and the candles turn into dots of eternal flame. I knew that in that final dot of burning light was the dot we have to look for, the ember, the concealed hope that hides in the dark places waiting to be remembered and renewed. And I knew that the tiny dot of flame was where it all began and where it will all eventually return, the inkling, the crazy idea, the possibility that we have a responsibility to not give up on the world and the dream of peace.

Behind our chanukiot, I saw ambulance lights and police lights and I heard the sirens. The lights outside were dwarfed by the tiniest light remaining inside after a night of glowing hope. If we keep lighting our flames and we keep coming back to them night after night to rekindle what gets inevitably lost in the tiring struggle that peace and empathy are not only good ideas but necessary, then we will succeed. Not we might, or we could, but we will. The plight of the Maccabees to sanctify the places that had been desecrated and bring light to the darkest moments will not be lost. We will bring holiness to our homes, Israel, the world, and humanity. That is the heroism that is demanded of us today, in fact, right this second.

We will use our light to help cast light on "the other" until we can realize once and for all, that when the light is allowed to fully shine, "the other" looks exactly like us, a fact that often goes unnoticed when the lights are dim or allowed to go out from despair, exhaustion, or anger.

A million books must be written on fire, hope, God, peace, smoke reaching and twisting upward with a died out desire. But tonight I feel like I have read every one of them, as if they were inscribed in the two candles burning in our two chanukiot. Chag Orim Sameach!

Stephanie Kolin is a first year rabbinical student studying at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, Israel. Thanks to her for sharing her words.