December is here and unless you live in Panama, it’s cold outside and the sun sets in the late afternoon. It’s at this exact time when we need it most that the Jewish Holiday of Chanukah comes to bring warmth and light into our lives. And while it’s only eight nights in the middle of an entire Winter, lighting the Menorah provides a welcome vacation to keep us from hibernating until Pesach.
There is something fascinating about the relationship between light and darkness. For example, one can only appreciate the true beauty of a starry night after leaving the city and its street lamps behind. And in the pitch-black of a country midnight, the effect of the tiniest firefly is magnified and can be seen from far away.
In many ways, this is the essence of Chanukah. The profoundly outnumber Jewish guerilla force fought off the well-trained and massive Syrian-Greek army. The few Jews who clung to their tradition survived amongst the throngs who fell to assimilation. And of course, there is the famous miracle of Chanukah itself: a single vial of pure olive oil was discovered and lasted for a full eight nights until new oil could be pressed to keep the Menorah burning in the Holy Temple.
There is a fascinating midrash about the history of this vial of pure oil. The night before his historic confrontation with his brother Esav, Yaakov Avenu returned alone across a river to retrieve “little vessels,” (Rashi on Beresheit 32:25). One might ask, what is the purpose of tiny jars to a wealthy man engaged preparing to meet his arch-nemesis? Here our Rabbis teach that Yaakov Avenu was retrieving the very vial of pure olive oil that would later be discovered by the Maccabis many generations later for use in lighting the Menorah. Of course it was worth going back across the river to retrieve it!
Little deeds can have tremendous ramifications. Or as better said in Chovot HaLevavot—the 1,000-year-old Jewish manual of personal development—“a small light can shine forth and push away much darkness.”
And sometimes a small act of kindness can help to extinguish an inferno. This past month saw thousands of Israeli families evacuated from their homes due to raging fires across the country; entire communities were forced to flee to shelters with nothing but the clothes on their backs. In the midst of this horrifying experience, I heard a story from an Israeli friend that brought a smile to my face and tears to my eyes. He was at the grocery store—along with the rest of his neighborhood—buying industrial cleaning supplies to repair the damage to his home done by smoke and ash. A big burly man pushed his way to the front of the line yelling that he only had a few minutes and needed to buy a bunch of toothbrushes and toothpaste. Figuring he’d lost his mind, no one wanted to be the one to ask what was going on. And then feeling the suspense as he shoved his credit card towards the cashier, the man decided to explain himself, “I know a lot of people are at the shelter right now without any of their stuff and it’s bad enough to have your house burned down, now they won’t even get to brush their teeth in the morning?!!? I gotta run this stuff over to them before my lunch break finishes and I get in trouble at work.”
Clearly this message reached the rest of the people in line who started grabbing cosmetics, food, candy, and toys from the aisles and passed up money to donate these items to their fellow Jews in a time of need. Suddenly the burly man at the front of the line was holding a wad of cash and bags filled with necessities for families with treats for their children. Suddenly the store’s owner appeared with tears on his cheeks and said, “Please don’t pay for this, I want the Mitzvah of donating everything, just help me load the truck and let’s distribute it together.” And so it was.
One cannot know the impact of a singular act until after the fact looking back to see how their loving kindness may have changed The World for the better. A single candle can light up an entire room and a single vial of oil can be cause for national celebration. And sometimes a handful of toothbrushes can give us faith in the goodness of our fellow man.