Can the Chanukah light vanquish global darkness?

December 21, 2014 by Rabbi Chaim Ingram
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Never have we needed Chanukah, the Festival of Light, more than during a week when global news events have plunged the world into deep darkness…writes Rabbi Chaim Ingram.


Rabbi Chaim Ingram

Rabbi Chaim Ingram

As if the shock-waves generated by the siege at Martin Place in Sydney’s CBD leaving two innocents dead were not enough, we have also this week witnessed the slaughter by Taliban terrorists (predictably called “militants” by the BBC) of  132 children, ten school staff and three soldiers in Islamabad and a car bomb attack by Sunni jihadists in Yemen snuffing out the lives of 25 people including 15 children.

I attempted to digest (with much emotional reflux) all these news items from the unlikeliest of locations. My wife and I have been privileged these past ten days to be the guests of a leading cruise liner where I was the in-house (or on-ship) rabbi.  So you could say that I was in a position to spread a little light amid a lot of darkness.

Not that there was any darkness on board ship.  The pleasure-seeking holidaymakers, most of them veteran cruise-goers, were in no mood to allow even the most horrendous of news stories to interfere with a vacation experience for which they had paid a lot of hard-earned money.  The hedonistic temptations and challenges on these vast, entertainment-filled luxury liners, testimony to the works and sophisticated lifestyle of 21st-century man, are humongous. (The halachic challenges of cruising can be readily overcome with forward planning and a little ingenuity.) But there is also the amazing, unparalleled experience of looking out over 360 degrees ,seeing vast expanse of seemingly endless ocean and being privileged to be able to davven Shacharit,at sunrise and Mincha at sunset in absolute ecstatic awe of the D-vine Creator of the world and of six millennia of humankind..

It was evident from fairly early on that among the 2,500-or-so passengers not many observant Jews were to be found. But we networked and unearthed some members of the tribe including some only-Russian-speaking Jews (with whom we nevertheless managed to communicate somehow), a Melbournian family, a Sydney mother and son and others who hailed me very cordially with a “Hallo rabbi!” (I guess was pretty easily identifiable) but who made it perfectly clear that they were on vacation from most things Jewish.  Distressingly, I discovered that my wife and I were the only kosher-requesting passengers on board.

That being the case, I decided I had to try to make it known that my Chanukah celebration would be of wide appeal. As a result, several non-Jewish cruisers, most of them religious Christians, requested to attend.  I decided that I would play it by ear.

In any event, I was pleasantly surprised that several fellow-Jewish travellers came out of the closet and turned up. I made my theme “the victory of light over might”.  I spoke of the fact that when G-D’s light was being threatened (the extinguishing of the Jewish faith not the Jewish nation was the Greek aim) our response had to be to take up arms to “protect” that G-Dly light. I declared that while the triumph of the hopelessly outnumbered Maccabees over the occupying Greeks was the mighty public miracle, it is the “little” miracle of the tiny cruse of oil lasting eight days which we celebrate as well as the spirit of the Jews in venturing to light the Menorah in the first place when there seemed little point.  I spoke of the amazing outpouring of devotion and love for the festival of Chanukah on our nation’s part throughout the centuries – the only mitzvah to which the level mehadrin min ha-mehadrin (superlative standard) applies and that no-one observes the mitsva on any other than this superlative level.  And I emphasised that the message of light amidst darkness and of religious freedom is a universal one transcending place, time and person and applicable to all humanity and particularly so in the wake of the unspeakable events of the past days..

Whether it was what I said (nothing startlingly new!), the way I said it, the setting or simply hashgacha pratit I do not know, but it engendered fifteen minutes of spirited, enthusiastic singing – HaNerot Halalu, Ma’oz Tsur and several popular Jewish songs at which the joy was contagious. Those who knew the words sang, those who didn’t read the transliteration or hummed, those who could do neither clapped along and smiled…So much so that the cruise events co-ordinator approached me afterwards and said to me: “Your religion is so joyous!  When we have a priest on board conducting Mass it is solemn and stern. It doesn’t send people away uplifted like this! I love the way you celebrate your faith!”  

I thought about our “solemn” festivals – Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur – and how we nevertheless celebrate these too through upbeat melodies and sentiments, always, emphasising the positive -and I told her so!

So …. I had intended to convey a message, albeit unspoken, that we can conquer, through light, every darkness, including the contemporary darkness of contemporary, murderous Islamism. And I had unintentionally provoked a message from a nominal Christian comparing our way of celebration favourably to theirs!

Another fellow-cruiser at the gathering, a clearly philo-Semitic practising Australian Christian, said to me (hopefully without condescension): “Rabbi, I passed you praying with your robe and boxes on deck 5.  I came this evening because I was impressed with the way you just carried on unselfconsciously and did not feel the slightest need to be apologetic about your practices!” (I should point out that I had no intention to be exhibitionist – our allocated cabin was hardly of cat-swinging size without natural light and davvening shacharit there meaningfully was simply not an option!)

Meanwhile members of the Russian Jewish group who had come with a lot of persuasion appeared to discover a Jewishness even perhaps they didn’t know they possessed and left looking visibly inches taller!

I fervently hope that through that Chanukah event as well as in my general interaction on board ship, I was successful in creating a mini-kiddush haShem several times over.  It is what we can all aspire to do in an age when our joyous, magnificent Torah way of life is increasingly seen even by outsiders to possess the answers!

The well-known tale is told of the ageing monarch who, wishing to nominate his heir, put his three children to a test. He asked each to fill a room with that which was most precious. One son filled it with precious diamonds, the second son with aromatic, fragrant greenery.  The king was not satisfied.  Came along the youngest, a daughter, and lit a bright flame in the centre of the dark room. Immediately the whole room was bathed in light, corner to corner, floor to ceiling, to the delight of her acclaiming father.  Truly a little light can wondrously vanquish a lot of darkness.

But what is more wondrous still is that every Jew has the ability – and the mission – to  spread that little bit of Torah-true light to conquer a world of darkness!



One Response to “Can the Chanukah light vanquish global darkness?”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    … and how much Torah inspired words can light up, illuminate a spirit avid of confidence in this troubled World. As us, Aussies, are obsessed with nick names, here’s yours, Rabbi Haim “Candle” Ingram. Shkoyach !!!

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