This Shabbat, we read the story of Joseph. Imprisoned because of false accusations from Potiphar, Joseph finds himself in the company of the baker and cupbearer. Listening to their dreams, Joseph brings hope and light in moments of darkness and fear. And, as we prepare to celebrate Hanukah in the coming week, I am reminded of story that reminds us, too, of the mandate to bring light into the world for others, especially at this time of darkness. As the story is told, it is a conversation between a rabbi and one particular member of the community
The man: " Rabbi, what is a Jew’s task in this world?"
The rabbi: "A Jew is a lamp-lighter on the streets of the world. In olden days, there was a person in every town who would light the gas street lamps with a light he carried on the end of a long pole. On the street corners, the lamps sat, ready to be lit. A lamp-lighter has a pole with a flame supplied by the town. He knows that the fire is not his own and he goes around lighting the lamps on his route."
The man: "But what if the lamp is in a desolate wilderness?"
The rabbi: "Then, too, one must light it. Let it be noted that there is a wilderness and let the wilderness be shamed by the light."
Not satisfied, the man asked: "But what if the lamp is in the middle of the sea?" to which the rabbi responded: "Then one must take off one’s clothes, jump into the water, and light it there!"
"And that is the Jew’s mission?" asked the man.
The rabbi thought for a long moment and finally responded: "Yes, that is a Jew’s calling."
The man continues – "But rabbi, I see no lamps."
The rabbi responds: "That is because you are not yet a lamp-lighter." So, the man inquires: "How does one become a lamplighter?"
This time, the rabbi answers: "One must begin with oneself, cleansing oneself, becoming more refined, then one is able to see the other as a source of light, waiting to be ignited. When, heaven forbid, one is crude, then one sees but crudeness; but, when one is noble, one sees nobility."
As we prepare to light the Hanukah menorah, each of us has an opportunity to see the lights of our own menorah and to become a lamp-lighter. As we watch the flickering flames of our candles, experience the combination of colors, and even the dance of the flames and wicks, we should ask: what is the light of human souls that are with me? Who are the noble people that light my path each day – in my home, in my workplace, in the stores that I frequent or the places I go? And, who are the people whose own wicks are waiting to be lit? What is the wilderness or even the sea of water that threatens to overcome them and how can I journey there to find time? How can I become their lamp lighter?
In the words of folk musicians, Peter, Paul and Mary: "And light one candle to bind us together, With peace as the song in our heart… Don’t let the lights go out, don’t let the lights go out…" The ultimate task of the Jew is to turn the dance of the flames and wicks into a human dance of connection and meaning that ultimately stirs our own soul out of darkness and towards the light of God.
Ken yehi ratzon – so may it be! Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukah!