BHAY Blog #4: Be the Shamash

The Shamash, the center candle, is used to light the other candles on the menorah, one for each night of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah began tonight at sunset. According to the Oxford Dictionary,

a lesser Jewish festival, lasting eight days from the 25th day of Kislev (in December) and commemorating the rededication of the Temple in 165 bc by the Maccabees after its desecration by the Syrians. It is marked by the successive kindling of eight lights.

Hanukkah celebrates a miracle that occurred during the rededication. There was only enough oil in the menorah, a candelabra with seven branches, to last for one night. But the oil lasted for eight nights! There are eight sacred candles on the Hanukkah menorah because the oil lasted for eight days

I first learned about Hanukkah when at school because I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, PA that was religiously diverse. In school we sang “The Dreidl Song” along with “Jolly Old St. Nicholas”, “Maoz Tsur“, a song written in the 13th century that is sung during Hanukkah, and “White Christmas.” 

I’m glad I grew up in a diverse area; having friends who were Jewish, various strands of Christian, and other faiths, helped me see avoid stereotypes about Those People. I learned about their traditions and they learned about mine.

Sadly, if you search the news, you will read of growing anti-semitism in Europe, as well as here in the United States. And one of the worst things for me about this anti-semitism, this prejudice against Jewish people, is that people use Christian scriptures to justify it. They totally overlook the reality that Jesus himself was Jewish.

People are assaulted as they walk down the street, swastikas are spray painted on buildings and subways; what starts as name-calling, ethnic slurs and racist jokes escalates to violence, including the tragic slaughter of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue here in Pittsburgh. Whatever the attack, whether verbal, physical, or deadly, when an attacker targets people because of the color of their skin, the religion they profess, a disability, a difference, or political stance, there anger and fear have merged with ignorance to destroy.

An alternative to this force of destruction fueled by anger, fear, and ignorance is to be a force for creation, an agent of love and mercy, fueled by hope, respect, and faith.  The Syrian army desecrated the Temple, sacrificing to Zeus in that holy place. Judah Maccabee cleansed it, and the lights burned brightly there. Those who are racist, those who are anti-Semitic, those who dehumanize anyone are desecrating our country, a country dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal. and where the words of Emma Lazarus that are written on the Statue of Liberty to welcome all include the phrase “From her beacon-hand/Glows world-wide welcome.” We desecrate the welcome when we mistreat others who share these shores with us.

As I wrote above, the Hanukkah menorah has eight sacred candles. There is another candle, that is set either above the eight or below them.  It is used to light the other candles, to share its light so that the room, and the world, may be brighter. That candle helps light up the world. That candle is called the shamash.  As many other writers, bloggers and preachers have suggested, be the shamash. Shine your light of love, creativity, and faith in our panicked pandemicked world, and treat others with kindness, so that others may have the courage to add their light to the world.

In a world where you can be anything, be the shamash.

Today’s Prayer Poem: “The New Colussus” by Emma Lazarus.

"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!"
cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
– Emma Lazarus, 1883

Grace and peace to you. And to my Jewish friends, Happy Hanukkah!


Today’s Prayer Poem: the lyrics to the song “Light Your World” by Chris Rice

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