Office of the Chief Rabbi

Thought for the Day: Chanukah and the resonance of flames today

Water, fire and bringing light into the world: Giving the Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4, the Chief Rabbi contemplates the ambivalence of the elements;  though they are essential to our existence, they are also capable of wreaking large-scale devastation of the sort we are witnessing in Cumbria and beyond.  

 

“Streets turned into rivers and homes into swamps, businesses destroyed and lives devastated.

Our prayers are with all of the victims of the floods in Cumbria and beyond – the stories of loss and desolation are truly harrowing. They remind me of the powerful Jewish supplication for rain, in which we pray for water to be, “for a blessing, and not for a curse; for sustenance and not for destruction; for life and not for death.”

Water symbolises purity, as God’s own vehicle for sustaining all that He created on earth, but as we’ve seen, it also has the capacity to wreak untold devastation upon our communities.

The same could be said of that other great element of the natural world – fire. A small flame can become the cause of great destruction and pain but, of course, it can also be used to provide light and heat, so essential in sustaining our civilisation for generations.

As Jews around the world kindle their Chanukah lights this week, marking the miracle of Jewish survival against the oppression of the mighty Seleucid Greeks close to 2,200 years ago, we consciously take an element with almost unlimited potential both for positivity and negativity and resolve to make it holy.

‘A small flame can become the cause of great destruction and pain but, of course, it can also be used to provide light and heat’

The great Jewish medieval sage, Moses Nachmanides, taught that there is nothing in this world which is inherently good or evil.

Only human intervention makes that determination. Money can wield power over vulnerable people or it can be used to provide those same people with opportunities for advancement. A home can segregate one from others or it can be a base for friendship and hospitality. And, similarly, religious teachings can be used to spread a message of hope, peace and morality or they can be manipulated to spread a doctrine of superiority, intolerance and murder.

Faced with the devastation of the flooding, it is inspiring to hear how many are engaging in acts of great kindness. They are offering shelter and hot food to those who have none. They are rolling up their sleeves with a mission to ease the pain of others. Sadly, we also hear how some are taking the opportunity to compound suffering by looting homes and businesses.

‘A home can segregate one from others or it can be a base for friendship and hospitality.’

Anne Frank wrote, “the good news is that you don’t know how great you can be … and what your potential is.” – it is up to us to use our unique set of characteristics and opportunities for the good.

This Chanukah, may we all use the flame that burns inside us to realise our potential for bringing a little more light into the world.”

 

 

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