As Jewish festivals go, Chanukah is one of our favorites – it is quite “user-friendly.” We get a rare green light to travel and cook with no restrictions. We can drive back and forth (no need for our hosts to find sleeping accommodations) and feast with family and friends as we gleefully celebrate the miracle of a rag-tag band of heroes beating the odds. We rejoice over the improbable reality that a few overcame the many; of a bit of burning oil lasting way beyond its “shelf-life.”
But there is another, timeless lesson ensconced in this Festival of Light that we should be aware of and internalize on a daily basis. It’s about seeing a need – and instead of waiting for someone more “qualified” or more experienced or more powerful or more “in the know” – we stand up, ignoring the deep pit of fear and doubt gnawing at our hearts; rolling up our sleeves, and “stepping up to the plate” (and I don’t mean the one containing the latkes).
The male members of the Maccabee family were kohanim, priests, spiritual leaders. They were not soldiers. The family’s patriarch, Matityahu could have easily rationalized that someone more trained in warfare and combat should take on the occupying Assyrian Greeks who had imposed their pagan culture onto the Jewish people and restricted their freedom of religion. Matityahu could have shrugged off the idea of physically engaging the enemy. Hey, not him, not his sons. The risks were too great, the challenge so formidable that it would be an exercise in futility. Why make what very likely would be a failed attempt to “fix what was broken,” to make the supreme sacrifice for nothing. Good intentions do not necessarily lead to a good outcome. All their blood, sweat and tears would be for naught – so why even bother?
But we all know that Matityahu, his sons and his not so merry band of men, forged ahead, despite the odds, despite their likely cluelessness of how to fight – and that made all the difference in the world. If not for this ordinary family’s willingness to take on an extraordinary challenge, Dovid would not exist, only Demetrius would.
I was reminded of the Maccabees and the message of Chanukah at a recent event celebrating 30 years of Aish Hatorah in Toronto. Four women, who I describe as female, 21st century Maccabees were the guests of honor – a fifth, was the guest speaker. Each had an incredible story of seeing a need, a tikun, and despite their very likely misgivings regarding the success of their endeavors, decided to swallow their doubts and “take the bull by the horns.”
Ellen Schwartz, a day school teacher, looked forward to the birth of her first child and envisioned re-discovering life and all its wonders anew through her baby’s eyes. But Jacob was born with Canavan’s, a rare, genetic neuro-degenerative disease. A gene found in the Ashkenazi Jewish population, if both parents are carriers, there is a one in four chance their child will have Canavan’s. Jacob is blind, cannot speak, eat or walk – and currently, there is no cure.
No one would have faulted Ellen and her husband Jeff from wallowing in self-pity and railing against the script the Heavenly Writer had written for them. However, instead of letting what seemed like a huge lemon “sour” their lives, Ellen and Jeff saw beyond their son’s severe disabilities and turned his life into a soul enriching lemonade. To that end, in 1998, Ellen co-founded Jacob’s Ladder, (the Canadian Foundation for Control of Neuro-degenerative Disease) an organization that raises awareness of, and funds research into finding cures for neur-odegenerative diseases. Now in its 10th year, Jacob’s Ladder has raised over $2 million.
Ellen also founded Project Give Back, a project in which children are encouraged to pick a charity or cause, research it, make contact, fundraise and share their knowledge with their class. In one instance related to Ellen, a student who spoke about his autistic sibling inspired a couple of classmates to reach out to an autistic neighbor whom they had previously ignored.
Ellen has ensured that Jacob’s life would enhance others lives – that through her special child, people, especially children, would grow as human beings and learn invaluable life lessons of coping, of appreciating what they take for granted; and learning compassion and patience and acceptance of those different from them. Jacob himself is a symbol, like the legendary oil of Chanukah that was supposed to last one day, but burned for seven days longer, beyond physical expectations. Not expected to reach his forth birthday, Jacob was bar-mitzvahed last year.