By Guest Blogger Hillary Zaken

We have changed our clocks, and darkness comes early here in North Carolina. But starting on December 10, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins … an 8-day long celebration of light over darkness and the victory of the small over the mighty.

2020 has been a year like no other.

Most years have their share of darkness and conflict, but for most of us, 2020 has been unusual and challenging in many ways. That is why this year, it is especially important for my family to light our Hanukkah menorah (or hanukkiah) together, and to place our lit candelabrum in the window for everyone who passes by to see.

The plan is to fill our home with joy and light and lots of traditional holiday foods, even though this year we can’t invite over our extended family.

I will fry up a batch or two of delicious latkes (fried potato pancakes), cook deep-fried doughnuts, and eat a festive meal – after all, what is a Jewish celebration without special holiday foods? We will play dreidel – the traditional game of lots played with a spinning top – that always ends with devouring piles of chocolate coins. And the kids will get presents – eight of them – one for each night (spoiler: there are always books, pajamas, and socks).

But that Hanukkah menorah in the window, that is what I am looking forward to. In these dark days, we yearn for the light. When I place my hanukkiah in my window so every passerby can see the candles, I am shining my own light out into the world, putting myself out there in the hopes that my light will be seen.

You see, I believe in the power of the individual to change the world. I believe that one kind word, one gesture of compassion, one note of praise, one compliment, one genuine smile (or these days, smile-with-your-eyes) can make a huge difference. Each of us can change the course of someone’s day on the micro level, and that kindness can be passed forward and on and on to spread more and more light into the world.

This morning, when I came out of my home office to take a break, I headed to the kitchen for coffee. Along my way, I saw a series of small notes on brightly colored post-its. “You are the best!” read one. “Hearts, hearts, hearts,” read another. “LOVE to Mommy,” read a third. My 12-year-old son, Lahav, had been thinking about me, and decided to write some love notes.

When I went out to the supermarket a bit later, I felt so warm and loved, so illuminated with delight. I couldn’t help but compliment a tired-looking older woman wearing a beautiful cherry red dress on her impeccable style. “Thank you,” she gushed, “You made my day. You have no idea how much I needed to hear that. It’s been a rough year.” I felt so happy that I pleased her, and can only hope that spark of joy was passed on.

And that brings me back to Hanukkah. When we light our Hanukkah menorah, we do not light the candles directly from a match or a lighter – we use a special candle, called the shamash – a helper – to illuminate others. The power of one candle to light others, of the individual to share and spread light, that is what we need in this winter season.

A few year ago, I read a quote by Rabbi David Wolpe, which I think of often:

“The Shamash is the candle that lights the others. Be a shamash.”  

Yes, Hanukkah for many is about getting presents and eating fried goodies. But every year we also retell the story of the Maccabees, the small band of Jewish rebels who defeated the mighty Greek army, and whose small can of oil lasted eight miraculous days.

That is the miracle here. That one candle can illuminate the entire menorah. That you, and I, and anyone, can be the shamash. We can lift each other up.

So this Hanukkah, be the shamash. Spread the light. Be kind. Share your joy and your ideas and your hope. Use your privilege, if you have it.  We each have something to share. And I know that one person can change the world, just like one candle can illuminate the entire menorah.

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