Posted on December 18, 2020 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
One Chanukah, while imprisoned in a concentration camp in Germany, the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn learned a lesson about hope.
“It was the cold winter of 1944,” he wrote, “and although we had nothing like calendars, my father, who was my fellow prisoner there, took me and some of our friends to a corner of our barrack. He announced that it was the eve of Chanukah, produced a curious-shaped clay bowl, and began to light a wick immersed in his precious but now melting margarine ration.
Before he could recite the blessing, I protested at his waste of food. He looked at me, then at the lamp, and finally said: ‘You and I have seen that it is possible to live up to three weeks without food. We once lived almost three days without water. But you cannot live properly for three minutes without hope.'”
Hope is essential for survival. Without it, we fall into despair, and the will to live and endure drains from our bodies and our spirits. I have heard too many stories recently of elderly people who have succumbed to effects of the coronavirus, not because they were infected, but because they had lost the will to live. Feeling isolated and alone, cut off from loved ones and friends, they descended into a darkness from which they could not emerge.
To dispel darkness. To bring hope. This is our task. And this is what we symbolize when we kindle lights on Chanukah. It is what the Maccabees did on the very first Chanukah when they rekindled the Menorah in the Great Temple – an act that my teacher Rabbi David Hartman z”l called the miracle of the first day of Chanukah.
On that day, finding themselves with only one jar of pure oil, the Maccabees could easily have decided not to bother lighting the lamp at all. The oil was insufficient, so the effort could easily have been dismissed as hopeless. But, as we know, Judah and his brothers did not choose that path. They did what was in their power to do. They took a leap of hope.
From generation to generation, this has been the story of our people. “The “miracle” of Jewish spiritual survival,” said Rabbi Hartman, “may best be described by our people’s strength to live without guarantees of success and to focus on how to begin a process without knowledge of how it would end.”
Hope, we see, is not just wishful thinking. It involves a willingness to act – to do what can be done here and now without certainty of what will be. When we take a leap of hope, something spiritually significant and essential is accomplished. Strength, fortitude, and resilience grow, and life is sustained.
This was the miracle of that long-ago first day of Chanukah. It was the miracle of Geza Gryn’s expression of hope amidst the misery of a German concentration camp. It is the miracle that our people has wrought from generation to generation. And it is the miracle that is in our power to replicate in every generation through faithful, principled action, through deeds of love and kindness, through acts of justice and generosity – by doing what can be done to lift ourselves and others out of darkness in the hope that the light will grow and redemption will come.
Rabbi Arnie Gluck