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Amid war, a Rabbi makes the case to 'raise up light' this Hanukkah

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Focus on the light. That's Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie's message for Hanukkah this year.

AMICHAI LAU-LAVIE: Think of how ancient this fire is that you just lit. It's brand-new, but it's older than all of us. So focus into the flames, and let us send love and light into the world.

SHAPIRO: Tonight is the eighth and final night of Hanukkah. Earlier this week, Rabbi Lau-Lavie led a virtual menorah lighting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Hebrew).

SHAPIRO: Lau-Lavie's congregation is in New York. But he grew up in Israel, and the last time I met him, we were both there. It was just a couple weeks after the Hamas attacks of October 7, and he was supporting people who were still in shock.

LAU-LAVIE: I would be so honored and grateful if I can give them the sense of serenity, if only for a moment, to be quiet and hear the wind.

SHAPIRO: This year Lau-Lavie has been thinking about the rituals of Hanukkah and their evolving meaning.

LAU-LAVIE: So Hanukkah has its origins in the obscure fogs of history. It was likely connected to the solstice in its earliest inception, the longest night of the year, where people of the Near East would light more candles and triumph over the scary winter.

SHAPIRO: Then it became associated with a story of military triumph. The Maccabees fought against the Syrian Greek empire for Jewish religious freedom. Then the story evolved again.

LAU-LAVIE: Six hundred years later, the story about a little jar of oil that survived for eight nights and the menorah being relit surfaces by the rabbis who were not so comfortable with the military history and with the Maccabees, who were less than illustrious leaders. Let's leave it at that.

SHAPIRO: So when we started our conversation, I asked Lau-Lavie what the holiday means to him personally this year.

LAU-LAVIE: Hanukkah has evolved successfully over thousands of years to have different meanings at different times. Right now, mid-war, it's enabling us to have a new meaning, and the new meaning is that we are transparent. We're lighting a menorah in our window. We are experiencing visibility in a new way, which is about, for me, Jewish pride, continuity and survival but not at the expense of someone else. How can this light, this candle, this flame be an opportunity for connection and not for confrontation?

SHAPIRO: And so each night, as you light the candles, what does that flame represent to you? If not the militaristic triumph, if not the miracle of oil lasting eight days, what do you think of when you look at that light, at that flame?

LAU-LAVIE: I stare into the flame, and I know that I'm looking into something which is older than human. I look into the menorah, which I know is one of the oldest continuously used religious tools in history, if not the oldest. The menorah is an older symbol than the Star of David, and our people have used it for 3,000 years to raise up sparks of hope even in the darkest of nights. So when I light the menorah this year, I add every spark of light to raise up light where, around us, there is so much despair.

SHAPIRO: If I could take a step back from the immediate observance of Hanukkah, when you and I spoke in October, Hamas had just attacked Israel a couple of weeks earlier. You flew there on almost zero notice. You had been going nonstop, meeting with survivors and families of hostages. In the couple months since then, have you had a chance to catch your breath and reflect on what that experience was?

LAU-LAVIE: The quick answer is no. I've been back in Israel once more since you and I met there. I'm going back again next week to help my Palestinian Christian friends mark Christmas, to be with my Jewish family and friends as they keep mourning our dead. I think we're all hurting on such a deep level that few of us are stopping to catch our breath. There is a little solace in Hanukkah, where we do pause for the power of ritual, for this alchemy of our emotions and for whatever fried foods can do to elevate the cholesterol in our mood. But it is a Hanukkah where, at least for me and I know for many others, it is framed in the horrors of this ongoing carnage with so many innocent lives killed in Gaza, with the humanitarian crisis that needs to stop.

SHAPIRO: I'm thinking about you saying you haven't had a chance to catch your breath, and with a congregation in the United States, family in Israel, the pressing needs of mourning the dead, addressing antisemitism, all of the other things that are screaming for your attention, how do you escape reactivity? How do you take a breath and take a step back and actually decide what the best use of your energy is instead of just responding to the thing that's immediately in your face?

LAU-LAVIE: Well, I think one of the tools that I have learned over the years is to not react immediately, to take a breath even when it's hard to not be breathless and to try and find spaciousness inside this urgency. We light candles on Hanukkah as a human act of resilience, to pause and get lost in the flames for only a few minutes so that we're not in this time but that we are in mythic time. We are in the big time. The arc of history is long. I believe the arc of justice is bending where we want it to bend - towards justice for all. But it is long, and right now we feel small. So being lost inside the flames is a way to be found within the longer arc of the possible.

SHAPIRO: When I asked you in October what people who you were meeting with needed, this is what you told me.

LAU-LAVIE: I think the first thing they want is to be heard, to know that they're not alone in this horror, that others care and have their back. The second thing is they just want to tell their story again and again. We know that that is usually the response to trauma. Storytelling is our tool of healing.

SHAPIRO: And so what do you think people need now?

LAU-LAVIE: I think two months later, we know that we're not in post-trauma, that we're in trauma, and this is continued trauma. So I think what people need during trauma is to continuously be held, to be believed. That's going to sound different for different people. My peacemaking camp needs to not lose hope that we can have a two-state solution, that there can be an end to this violence.

My very gung-ho Israeli Zionist family and friends need to know that first and foremost, they are safe and that their enemies will not be attacking them, whether that is Hamas or antisemites or people who take sides with pro-Palestine without any consideration for the Israeli pain. So there isn't one answer, and there's no one way to stand with people in solidarity. But solidarity is, I think, what is needed now more than ever, which is why I'm going to do my damn best to be with my Palestinian friends in Jerusalem and Haifa, to be with my Israeli family with very different opinions and to just show up.

SHAPIRO: Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie. Thank you, and happy Hanukkah.

LAU-LAVIE: My friend, may it be a meaningful and transcendental holiday of turning the lights on.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "FOTOGRAFIA #2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.