The Best Gift

 Let it snow, let is snow, let it snow. Growing up in New Jersey, and spending the past decade of my life living in New York City, the celebration of Hanukkah is synonymous with snow. Bundled up in heavy winter coats, hats, gloves, and scarfs, we would spend hours playing outside in the snow (as a child and as an adult!) until it was dark. In the evening, we lit the Hanukkiyah and the lights of the Menorah would be the only light illuminating the snowy white landscape that had been otherwise hidden by the pitch black of winter.

This year, I look forward to a Hanukkah without snow! Instead, this Hanukkah, my family’s first in Jacksonville, will be a Hanukkah full of sunshine. Still, I have no doubt that with the changing of our clocks last month, the days will still seem much shorter as darkness will set in much earlier. There is something comforting about gathering around the Menorah with friends, family, and community members. This sense of comfort is more than just creating light in the darkness. Rather, it is celebrating a miracle in our tradition while realizing the miracles of our lives, and helping others appreciate the miracles in their lives as well.

With the “Hallmarkization” of the holiday, Hanukkah is simply about giving gifts for many.  Don’t misunderstand me: I have no problem with exchanging of gifts on Hanukkah. I find it to be a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday. Yet, I worry that we get caught up in the material goods that we are giving and receiving and forget about the true gift of Hanukkah: the gift of light.

As children, we all learned the Hanukkah tale of the “miraculous” oil burning for eight days. Such a story is hardly a reason to establish an annual festival. What the light actually represents is hope and new beginnings. The lights is ignited at one of the darkest points in our history. The Temple in Jerusalem was desecrated and many Jews assimilated and embraced cultural trends, pitting Jew versus Jew and seriously putting the future of Judaism in jeopardy. Yet, when the Menorah was lit, the Temple was rededicated and the light became a symbol of a new beginning.

Tradition teaches us that the Jewish people are an or l’goyim, a light unto the nations of the world. When we light the Hanukkiyah we remember one of the darkest moments in our history and recognize that there are still pockets of darkness that exist in this world. The flickering flames of the Menorah act as a reminder that we must light up this world. Our mission, obligation, and responsibility as Jews is to take action and make this world a better place. There is no better moment than during the coldest and darkest time of the year — whether there is snow on the ground or sun shining in the sky — for us to metaphorically light up the world.

“Lighting up the world” and being a light unto the nations seems like an awfully big task. In actuality, it is quite simple. We bring light to the darkness of the world and the darkness of people’s lives by helping those in need. The Center’s Social Action Community has done this through our successful Donate the Weight campaign and our continued Operation Isaiah Food Drive, by collecting and donating winter coats to Sulzbacher, as well as cooking, preparing, and serving food at Sulzbacher. We even light up someone’s life by reaching out, checking in, and seeing if friends, family, and community members need anything. We are grateful during this season for the gift of light. I know that with all the good we are capable of doing as a community the lights that we ignite in this world will shine bright!

Andrea, Cayla and I wish the entire community a Chag Urim Sameach, a Happy Hanukkah. May the year ahead be much brighter for us all!

-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky


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