In the 1990s, two Chabad yeshiva students went on a special mission under a program called Merkaz Shlichus. This is where young rabbinical students travel during their break, particularly during the summer months, to far-flung communities that are not served with a permanent Jewish presence.
These two students found themselves in a little remote town in Western Alaska that had more moose than people — let’s just say it wasn’t very Jewish. They searched and couldn’t find a single Jew so they asked the mayor/policeman/fireman/attorney (that was one person, by the way) if they could speak to the children at the school. He agreed and even escorted them to the school and introduced them. One of the rabbinical students got up to speak to the kids and asked, “Has anyone ever met a Jewish person?”
A little girl raised her hand and said, “Yes, I have. My mother is Jewish!”
So now this rabbinical student is trying to think to himself, “What should I tell this little Jewish girl who will probably not see another Jew in years? What message can I give her that will imbue her with pride? How can I empower her to celebrate who she is?”
He took out a little Shabbat candle kit and turned to her and said, “This is a Shabbat candle. We light this each Friday as the sun sets to bring light, peace and joy to our homes, our communities and to the entire world. Here in this western most part of Alaska, the Shabbat is ushered in the last of all of the cities of the world (where Jews live). This means that each Shabbat when you light these candles, the world will be waiting for your light. Do you think you can do this very special task?”
The girl smiled and agreed, and so a little girl across the world was inspired and empowered to add her light to the world.
Can you imagine what that did for that child? He could have said, “What are you doing in middle of nowhere where there are no Jews?” Instead, in the most beautiful way, he made her feel important. She had a task to perform for the whole Jewish people, for the whole world. That is how you change lives — by showing people a greatness they did not know they had.
What an incredible message! Each of us has our own unique, special light to add to the world and the world waits for that light. We must reach out and empower each soul to add its light to the world. In these uncertain times, when the world shakes at its foundation, it is more vital than ever to empower our brothers and sisters with this message. Each of us must know, like that little girl in Alaska, that ours is a light that the world waits for.
This is the message of the Chanukah menorah. When our ancestors entered the holy temple after they had just won their freedom, they searched and found but one jug of oil. I am sure many there thought, “What can you seriously accomplish with one puny little bottle of oil? Let’s wait until the barrels of the temple are once again replenished with oil and then we will begin to light the menorah — to be a light amongst the nations.”
Instead, they said, “If we can create light right now, let’s do it.” And the menorah burned for eight days until a new supply could be brought.
The message to each of us is clear: When you live in a world shrouded with darkness, you can’t wait; you must light with whatever little oil you have. Such is the urgency of light. We might think, “Someday I will share the talents I have been given — yet I will wait till my jug is full. Until I have my career in order. Until I figure out what I want to do with my life. Until I have financial security. Until the kids get out of the house. I would love to be a light, to light the fire of my fellow man, yet I am not sure I have sufficient light myself.”
This menorah softly reminds us that the world needs what you might define as insignificant oil and it needs it today. You give your light and G-d will take it from there.
If you know how to pronounce “aleph,” teach it to a friend. If you have a mitzvah that speaks to you, welcome your friend to join along with you.
And like the menorah, don’t be abashed. Light your lamp, your Jewish identity, proudly for all to share in its glow. Once you do, you will be amazed to see how much light that small candle can make. Even ice can be melted into a sea of warmth. pjc
Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum directs Chabad of the South Hills. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.