This week, as we commemorate Chanukah, our Festival of Light, we will light our candles and begin our eight-day celebration of Chanukah. At the same time darkness has fallen over our world once more with the death of dozens of children in a school in Pakistan, in a world in which so much darkness has already fallen over this last year in particular. The darkness highlights the importance of the work of each of us has in this community. More than ever we must live the lessons of Chanukah, the festival of light; more than ever we must take responsibility to bring light to a world where there is still too much darkness.
Let us reflect on the stories of Chanukah to see how we can do that. Our prayer for Chanukah, “Al HaNisim”, tells us of the background to the story, reminding us of a time of religious persecution and national oppression. “In the days of Matthatias son of Yochanan, the heroic Hasmonean Kohen, and in the days of his sons, a cruel power rose against Your people Israel, demanding that they abandon Your Torah and violate Your mitzvot.” We were forbidden to teach Torah, which opens with the declaration “let there be light”. Light, even in the Torah, is understood as a metaphor for that which is good, for knowledge, perception, wisdom and understanding. To teach Torah, where it says that each and every human being was created in the image of God, each of us divine and equal – was a crime punishable by death. But certain brave individuals, led by the Maccabees, also known as the Hasmoneans, refused to let darkness cover the earth.
The word, Chanukah, or dedication, in Hebrew has the same root meaning as the word Chinukh, or education. Our ancestors understood the centrality of education to individuals and society. They established that our first petitionary prayer is the prayer for knowledge, understanding and discernment. They also established the first system for free public education 2,000 years ago – albeit then only for boys. We must not take for granted our privilege of learning, especially in the year in which the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzay for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education. Malala said:
“This award is not just for me. It is for those forgotten children who want education. It is for those frightened children who want peace. It is for those voiceless children who want change. I am here to stand up for their rights, to raise their voice. It is not time to pity them. It is time to take action so it becomes the last time that we see a child deprived of education.”
What we know is that it is not just education, but the curriculum, the vision and values behind the learning that is so central to the lessons learned. Our vision for our congregation is to be a spiritual home for all Jews in this area to sanctify their lives through Jewish practice, sensitive to contemporary society and committed to Jewish tradition, while emphasizing the values of integrity, leadership, inclusiveness, respect and growth.
At our little shul, we teach the light of Torah, the principles of our ancestral tradition. For the prophet Micah it was to do justice, act with loving-kindness and walk humbly with God. For Rabbi Akiva, it was to reference the mitzvah of Torah to “love your neighbour as your yourself.” His predecessor, the great sage Hillel taught, “Be a disciple of Aaron – loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and attracting them to the study of Torah.” For these prophets, sages and rabbis of old, our greatest teachers, learning Torah – something prohibited during the time of the Maccabean revolt – was about learning principles by which all humanity could live together.
In this week in which darkness descended on our world with dozens of children dead in a school in Pakistan and people hold hostage in a cafe in Sidney, it is important to remember the light that each of us brings by our commitment to learning and teaching. After our winter break, we will have courses of study happening in 2015 for both young and old alike. At CBTBI, we are committed to daily improving the world in which we live. As we learn, we bring light, as we do, we create peace.
The revolt of Chanukah was that first revolt for Chinukh, the right for education, and learning. Let us rededicate ourselves to the spirit of our ancestors whose bravery and foresight we commemorate at this season. Let us learn in order to do, let us learn to be and let us bring the light.