I did a funeral this week. And as I sat with the family before the funeral getting information about her life and the relationships with her mother and her husband, her daughters and sons-in-law, and her grandchildren and great children a lovely picture emerged. It was a picture of a woman who embodied the eyshet chayil. She was “there” for everyone, her husband lavished her with praise, her kids spoke about her patience and her love, her grandchildren spoke about her generosity.
Sitting with them on Hanukkah painted a text for the eulogy. And the eulogy was based on a candle, the Shamash.
I’m fascinated by the Shamash. It stands taller on most channukiyot. It looks important because on all channukiyot it stands alone, apart. And yet, the Shamash is the one candle that is not considered “holy.” Because, each of the other candles represent the days of Hanukkah. Each one has a number. Each single one is considered holy. You’re not allowed to light one of them off the other. You’re not allowed to “use” anyone of them for any utilitarian purposes. They have one purpose… “Lfarseim et a neis”…to proclaim the miracle. And that is why they are lit for others to see. Kedoshim heim. They are holy.
But the Shamash which has no meaning in terms of history or holiness is very important to us.
It is the worker bee.
It is the candle that gets things done, it gives a spark of light, transfers a flame and demands nothing of us. And if we want to light something off of it.
There’s an old medieval legend about a blacksmith who trained to be the smith at the royal palace. He learned how to hold the tongs, lift the hammer, smite the anvil and blow the fire with the bellows. He was chosen to be the blacksmith to the king. But when he arrived on the job he was quickly disappointed, because although he had all the skills, he did not know how to light the spark…
With all his skills and know how, unless he could light the spark he would be a failure.
The lesson is clear…
Its more often than not the person who is not particularly noticed who makes the biggest difference in the world, more often than not there is somebody or somebodies behind them creating the inspiration. More often than not it’s the person without fanfare, the giving, and yes, selfless person that creates the post meaning in life.
I thought about that woman whom I eulogized. Her husband was a great successful man, all her kids were too, and she…she made them all comfortable, took care of their needs…and from what they said…did not complain. She was consistently giving up her seat, feeding and helping.
This is often found in the spirit of the loving parent or grandparent. There are people like this in the world. It may be something in their DNA…they may have learned it from some parental models…but their exceptionalism is in a tireless commitment to give.
I tell you this today, yes because of this woman whose funeral I did this week, and because of the Shamash…but really because of other women I learned about.
One was Anne Glenn. Anne Glenn was the lifelong partner of the former astronaut and Senator from Ohio, John Glenn. John was a true America hero. But John never failed to mention that his life would not have amounted to anything without Anne. Anne was his greatest supporter and most helpful critic. She made his home and his comfort. She raised his kids. And until she was older, she had such a stutter that she could barely speak. And they took care of each other. She was his Shamash.
There was a selfless woman who died recently. I hope you read about her. Her name was Marion Pritchard.
She was a gentile woman in Holland who witnessed Nazi soldiers storm a home where Jewish children were being housed. She saw them throw the kids on a truck for deportation to Auschwitz.
Marion Pritchard was a social worker student at the time on her way to class. Riding her bike, she saw the soldiers pick up the kids by their arms and by their legs and by their hair and throw them into a truck. She witnessed as two other young friends saw what was happening and began to attack the Nazis. They too were thrown into the truck.
Marion Pritchard watched in dismay but had her life transformed. She then began to adopt Jewish children, to feed children, to help with the falsification of passports and visas.
Marion Pritchard also transported Jews to shelters and secret locations to save them. She was singularly responsible for saving over 150 Jewish children. Today, from that 150 there are probably thousands of Jews alive. She never told anyone what she was doing, not even her own family.
Like the story of Nicholas Winton, of whom an incredible movie was made; she served others and wanted nothing in return.
The NY Times wrote about a rescue when Pritchard was living in servants’ quarters outside of Amsterdam. She was hiding a family; the Pollacks. They had four little children.
There was space under the floor boards where the kids hid whenever they heard anyone come. One-night SS guards came and the kids went into hiding. Often the SS would return a short while later, suspecting there were Jews in hiding. In this case a collaborator returned. The kids were making noise…Marion Pritchard did what she never had done before. She knew there was a gun hidden behind the bookcase. She took it out a killed the collaborator. She saved the kids, she saved the family.
The story is documented in a book: Secret Lives: Hidden children and their rescuers.
Marion Pritchard stayed with the Polacks until the war was over. She then separated and didn’t see them for thirty years. They were reunited at a ceremony at Yad Vashem where she became a chasidei umot olam…formally named a righteous gentile. In the nineties she received a medal of valor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
After the war she continued as a social worker and influenced the lives of thousands. She brought light to the dark places.
You know stories like this.
We know stories of the incredible selflessness of people who commit their lives to helping or saving others.
In the bleakest and blackest times there are individuals who are willing to risk everything to help others.
These are the world’s sham shim.
They bring light into the darkest places. They expect no reward. They want to allow holiness to pervade. They affirm life, often at great risk.
There is fairly well known story told about the Jews of Lech Ambon; a Protestant community in France. The entire community would have been wiped out, like so many communities, at the hands of the beasts, the Nazis. But the entire community was saved by the inspiration a single individual.
Andre Troche’ and his wife Magda organized a community, schools and houses and railways to save hundreds of people, defying the oppressors and risking everything.
I’m not going to tell this whole story now. I want to tell the story of how this became known.
There was professor at Wesleyan University named Philip Haile…He was a philosopher who specialized in the human behavior of good and evil, of good and evil. He was also a man who experienced terrible antisemitism in his young life. Studying the prevalence of evil and cruelty in the world, began to cast a serious depression upon him.
It literally, as we say, got to him. He made a decision, this world was not for him. He decided to commit suicide. During this period, he travelled to France and learned of the village of Lechambon. He learned of Tracme and Magda and he learned of the courageous members of their community whom he inspired to do acts of goodness. He learned of the power of love over hate, grace over retribution, and nonviolence over war. He learned that there were those who lived out an ethic of love as a human right.
And something switched inside the professor. He wrote about this. He decided that he could live in this world. And there is a place for him. He learned that he too could light a candle.
He saw the capacity to bring light into the darkest place has the capacity to change the universe.
And I think about the Shamash. Without the Shamash the channukiah does not get lit.
No, I think about our world. And I hear the stories of pain and despair, we all do…and I realize…that each of us carries a bit of responsibility to be a Shamash. And, none of us can be sure where the next Shamash is…what people they come from…But each of us can play some kind of role…
I’m convinced of it.
I’ve seen people, like you have, people who carry light into the world.
And I know that’s what we’re supposed to be…A people who are an or l’goyim…Sometimes we are…sometimes we fall short. We’re humans and we are given a mission. Can we fulfill that mission?
But we should assert for this.
In the haftarah we read…not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit…
It’s really not about the power you have but the spirit you bring to life…that’s what creates the light that burns on and on…it has for centuries and through generations…and we can be that. Each one of us can be a Shamash lighting lights, creating the space and place for holiness.
I know…I confess…this whole talk sounds so optimistic and, perhaps, you might say naïve. But I say, it beats the cynicism, the hatred, the defensiveness, and the fear and the threats of violence around us.
Sign me up for optimism, for truth, for kindness and for love…sign me up.
And I know so many of you will join that list…
Someone sent me the following immediately after I completed this sermon.
Listen to these words.
A great Rabbi once remarked that “You cannot chase away darkness with a stick, you have to turn on the light.” The way to eliminate darkness — to rid the world of ignorance, negativity, hatred and greed — is to kindle the lights of knowledge, generosity, hope and love.
The Chanukah menorah is lit only after nightfall. This signifies that our purpose is to illuminate the darkness of this world, until the time when, as the Prophet says, “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d.” It may be difficult for us to perceive G-dliness in our everyday lives. But Chanukah reminds us, even in our darkest moments, that the light of knowledge can shine brightly, that redemption is at hand, if we will kindle just one more lamp.
The Chanukah lights are sacred.
As we say in the prayer after lighting the menorah, “We are not permitted to make use of them, only to look at them, and offer thanks and praise… for Your miracles, for Your wonders, and for Your salvations.”
We affirm the supremacy of spiritual light over coarse materialism, of Divine wisdom over human limitations. We recognize that the world in which we live is not an end in itself, but exists to serve a higher spiritual purpose
Shabbat Shalom and one last Chag urim sameach!