Is there more pain or joy in this world? Are our lives dominated by suffering and loneliness or by pleasure and happiness?
One frigid New York night, a President whispered into a Rebbe’s ear: “It is so terribly cold.” The Rebbe replied: “Yes, indeed. Our work is to warm it up…”
This episode came to mind while I was lighting the Chanukah candles tonight, and thinking about an earlier phone conversation I had today. A gentleman who had attended our Chanukah experience last night called me with a very warm thank you. “You cannot imagine what your event did for me yesterday. I have barely been able to pull myself out of bed these last few days. Whenever the holiday season comes, the dread of re-engaging with my family drives me into a deep depression.”
“You see,” he continued, “my family is very dysfunctional. I know you understand what that means and I would prefer not to go into details. But suffice it to say that my father was always very abusive to my mother and to me and most of my siblings. He is wealthy and always used his money to control us, and pit us against each other. The worst time of year for me was always the holiday season, when we would be forced to make believe that we are the warmest and happiest family. The years of false family get-togethers and celebrations on Chanukah have worn me down. And now, whenever that time of year comes around, I isolate myself as much as possible – simply to escape the hypocrisy and pain.
“A friend suggested that I come to your Chanukah party, claiming that it will energize and empower me. With all due respect, I told him that I don’t have the strength and don’t believe anything can really help me, especially this time of the year. But he persisted – God bless him – and I begrudgingly came along.
“At first I stubbornly insisted on sitting in a corner, simply waiting for the moment to escape and affirm my conviction in the hopelessness of my situation. But then to my utter surprise, the energy in the room – the faces of people so mesmerized by the obvious electricity – woke something up in me, something deep inside. I don’t know whether it was the drums, the warmth, or perhaps something intangible – but I slowly felt like a dead person coming alive. What really shocked me was when you then said, that Chanukah is the story of each of our lives. We all go through three stages in our lifetimes, and sometimes in one day, and even in one hour: The shadow, the spark and the illumination. We each will go through moments of doubt, uncertainty and even despair. Just when things may appear hopeless, Chanukah shows us that we can discover a small “cruse of oil,” a spark of hope. We then learn how to fan this spark and transform it into an enduring and illuminating flame.”
“I felt as though you were speaking to me directly. ‘How could you know my situation when we never even met?’ I wondered to myself. But then I stopped wondering and joined in, full force I may say, in the celebration.
“All I can say to you is thank you from the depths of my heart and soul. Thank you for igniting in me a renewed hope – and of all times, in my most difficult period in the year. I just hope I can hold on to this revitalized energy.”
I unabashedly admit that I was deeply moved by this man’s words, while I embarrassingly acknowledge that I was also flattered.
Yes, my friends, this is the story of Chanukah: A small flame can vanquish the greatest darkness. A little warmth can thaw the coldest heart. And beyond that: the gloomy murkiness and bitter frost may be very real; but their shadows and winds come our way in order for us to illuminate the dark night and warm the chilled air.
I feel honored and blessed to have the opportunity – and to work with a wonderful team of souls dedicated – to bring a bit of radiance and warmth into our dark and frozen world.
Last night our MLC Chanukah experience was an example of what good people can do when they come together as one, and leave their pettiness and pedestrian concerns at the door, and instead allow their souls to surge. With songs, candlelighting, drums – and yes, a didgeridoo – we released some brightness and warmth, with a lot of passion. It was quite electrifying, I must say.
No doubt that thousands of such celebrations are making their mark across the globe this Chanukah, as they have been doing for over two millennia. “These flames,” Nachmanides writes, “will never be extinguished.”
Chanukah is a time of dedication and rededication to light and warmth. No matter what shadows are lurking and what cold winds are blowing, we have the power and ability to not merely withstand these challenges, but to transform them into assets.
This Chanukah let each of us resolve to build a small hearth in our environments. Welcome people in from the cold. Friends, strangers – everyone can use a bit of extra kindness.
There are many people out there in the frozen tundras. Some have learned to adjust to the cold, others have become numbed, and yet others have acquired fur coats, perhaps even more than one and remain buried beneath layers upon layers of protection.
We are blessed with the gift and responsibility to create a warm oasis, and bring people in from the heartless streets and nameless plains – and bring to life the innate warmth within each person’s soul, which is essentially a Divine pilot flame waiting to be fanned.
The President expressed how cold it was. The Rebbe replied that it’s our work to warm it up.
The President was Zalman Shazar of Israel; the Rebbe was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The year was 1971.