D’var Torah: Light and Faith in Our Times

The story of Jacob’s wrestling in last week’s Torah portion and the lighting of the Menorah on Sunday connect powerful themes of struggle, faith and light that bring both encouragement and responsibility into focus. 

“Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” Genesis 32:5

One thing that life has taught me is that we all face difficult circumstances and hard choices. Jacob is scared. He needs to face his brother Esau who has every right to hate him. The safety of Jacob and his family is at stake. He doesn’t have control of the situation. He can prepare gifts, make military moves and pray, but he cannot control what Esau does. He also needs to come to terms with what he did and the man he wants to be. 

What happens? He wrestles a mysterious figure. I picture them clenched together wrestling with momentary gains being wiped out by countermoves. In the end, Jacob prevails by just hanging in there all night. His adversary, desperate to get away, is forced to give Jacob a gigantic blessing – the blessing of meriting becoming Israel. It is not that Jacob has won. No, it is that he has embarked fully on the journey of becoming the best version of himself that he can be. He does not leave this battle unscathed. He is limping. 

We are all Jacob and we should all strive to be Israel. Life is hard and we face tough questions and circumstances. Sometimes the best we can do is keep at it and find a way to limp on.

The Maccabees had led an improbable rebellion and won back independence and the Temple. They, too, were bloodied and suffered as they came together as a community to resume Jewish ritual. There was only enough pure oil to light the eternal flame for one day. New oil was a week away. They had done their best. They lit the lamp and left the rest to faith. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days. 

These two stories connect for me. All of us have our individual journeys with challenges big and small. We need to wrestle ourselves to find our faith and our inner strength. Sometimes these battles leave us just barely limping along. At the same time that we have our own experiences we are also part of a community. Whether individually or collectively, we sometimes reach a point where there is no logical reason to expect things to get better or to work out. We summon the will to light the candle anyway. 

What is the power of a lit candle? The flame brings light, warmth and joy. It also draws people in. We light the candles to help ourselves and we light the candles to call upon each other to help us. We look for candles, which sometimes flicker, so we can find those who need help.

That is one powerful message of Hanukkah and Judaism. Even with our own struggles, we have the power to literally, figuratively and spiritually spread light to each other. We need to remember that everyone is experiencing something that we might not know or understand. Our job is to help them keep up their struggles and ease their burdens. By lighting our candles we aren’t just hoping to summon a miracle, we are signaling that we are willing to be a part of the miracle. As we light our Menorahs next week, I hope we find ways to let light into our lives while also trying to spread it to others. 

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.