Earlier this week I was privileged to host a retreat of 16 Jewish educators and two master teachers from beyond the Jewish community, Parker Palmer and Marcy Jackson. Parker has spent the better part of the last 40 years writing, speaking, and teaching about issues of education, particularly the inner life of the teacher. He and Marcy co-founded the Center for Courage and Renewal, which has trained nearly 200 facilitators and 35,000 participants in methods of uncovering and recovering our “inner teachers,” the still, small voice of truth within.
There are more things than I can say in a blog post about what transpired and what happened. Some of us knew each other before this gathering, but even I–the organizer–was close with only a few of the participants. Yet over two days sitting in a circle, reading poems, sitting in silence, and speaking openly and honestly with each other, we enabled one another to be transformed.
In choosing the dates for this gathering, we followed the lead of Parker and Marcy. It turned out the best dates for them were November 30-December 1, meaning that our gathering concluded just as Hannukah began. And so, after sitting quietly in our closing circle, offering up our sense of gratitude with a spirit of renewed integrity, we took the candle that had been burning in the middle of the circle and used it to light a shamash, the helper candle that lights the actual lights of Hannukah. We sang the blessings, and we spontaneously broke into song and dancing.
It was a remarkable moment. For at its root, Hannukah is about the purity of Jewish life. It is about the struggle to maintain a unique language and culture within a globalizing movement that seeks to eliminate difference. In its origins, Hannukah is a violent holiday, commemorating a war. Yet here we were, a group of educated and committed Jews, who enabled ourselves to be held by and learn from our rebbeim and chaverim, our teachers and friends, from another tradition. And it was completely right, it was shalem (complete), and it was shalom.
The symbol and perhaps the essence of Hannukah is light–fragile, gentle, and yet immensely powerful, capable of both great good and great harm. Ner Adonai nishmat adam – “The lamp of God is the soul of man” (Proverbs 20:27). The soul, the inner teacher, is the lamp of God.
The laws of Hannukah state that the Hannukah lights are not to be used in any way–we are only allowed to look at them. We have to honor their integrity, to give them the space to be uniquely them. And yet we know that in this real world we inhabit, nothing truly exists in isolation. And so, brilliantly, we light the shamash, the helper candle–a candle that enables the Hannukah candles to maintain their integrity and uniqueness while mixing with light that can be used.
Like the lights of Hannukah, our souls need helpers, our souls need a shamash. We need people and environments where we can hear our souls. It is possible, as the last two days remind me. It is not in heaven, it is not beyond the sea. But it is hard work, and it is miraculous.
Hannukah Sameach - Happy Hannukah.