Extending our Arms

The holidays tend to come with their own special stories with memorable characters like Ebenezer Scrooge, Hershel (and his Chanukah Goblins), and Buddy the Elf.  This year, being different in so many ways, calls for a different kind of Chanukah tale.  Not unlike “A Christmas Carol,” this one from Jewish folklore involves a strange dream, and a journey:

Once there was a man who dreamt that an angel visited him and took him by the hand and led him out of his home to a mansion in a far-off land. 

The angel ushered him into the house, to the dining room, where, around a great table sat many guests. The table was piled high with the most delicious foods. But when the man looked closely at the scene, he saw that the guests looked hungry, their faces lean and lined. He couldn’t understand why. And then he realized that none of them had elbows. So, while they could reach the food on the table, they could not bring it to their mouths.

The man cried to the angel, “This is too ghastly to behold.  I cannot look at it any longer.  Please take me away from here.”

So the angel grasped the man by the hand and whisked him away to another land and another dining room in another mansion that, at first, appeared just like the one they had left behind.  Around this table too, also filled with food, sat many guests, again with no elbows.

The man turned to the angel and pleaded, “No, I told you I cannot look upon this hell any longer; it’s too terrible.”  But the angel insisted the man examine the scene more closely.  When he did, he saw that these guests were not hungry at all, but were instead smiling and laughing.

Because they could not bring the food to their own mouths, they were reaching across the table and feeding one another.

This story so perfectly captures the challenges and joys of this strange moment.  This holiday season, too many of us will not be able to bend our elbows to draw near to us the loved ones and friends with whom we had hoped to be together.  We will not wrap our arms around them, but rather, for their safety and ours, hold them at arm’s length. Nor can many of us worship and celebrate in the physical presence of those communities sacred to us.

But this hour in history has taught us what, in truth, we already knew:  that physical distance need not separate us.  We have discovered new ways to reach out and remain present in one another’s lives. We are adapting to our elbow-less world and feeding each other with the support and love we need to survive and even flourish. We are listening more, comforting more, and helping one another smile and laugh.

Certainly the most vulnerable in our society – the homeless and the hungry, the poor and the sick, the isolated and the lonely– need us now more than at any time in recent memory.  When we extend ourselves to them, to ease even a little bit of their suffering, we bring light into our darkening world.

It is no coincidence that Jews celebrate the miraculous victory of the small Hasmonean army over the mighty Antiochus, or that Christians celebrate the miracle of Jesus’s birth – both coming at the darkest season of the year – by kindling lights.  It is our human response to darkness.   The celebration that Jews have carried on for centuries recalls the miracle of light – or more specifically the miracle of one day’s supply of oil lasting for eight days and nights.  Chanukah is a lesson in optimism, in light’s triumph over darkness, in the potential of each individual’s resolve to transcend difficulty and loss and light a candle.

And we needn’t look back to the Maccabees for proof of it.  Just consider the doctors and nurses working around the clock to care for COVID-19 patients, and the scientists toiling long hours to develop and perfect vaccines to extinguish the coronavirus for good.  And the schoolteachers who continue to enrich the lives of our children despite new and unfamiliar circumstances.  And the grocery clerks, the postal service, the public servants, and all the essential workers who show up each morning before the sun to keep our communities functioning, despite the darkness of the pandemic.

They are the candles in our Menorah. Thanks to them, the darkness is not so dark anymore.

Chanukah is Hebrew for “dedication.” In the Talmud, it refers to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.  In 2020, as we learn to survive in an elbow-less world by reaching out to sustain each other, let it be about dedication to our fellow human beings, and our own power to kindle light.

About the Author
Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.
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