One Candle at a Time

How many candles do you light the first night of Chanukah? The answer feels obvious to us today, but it was not obvious 2,000 years ago when the holiday began.

Shammai and Hillel, two important early rabbis, debated this question. Shammai said that all eight lights should be lit on the first day and then one less each day. Hillel said that one should be lit the first day and then one more each additional day until all burned on the last day of Chanukah. 

Shammai’s logic underlines the fact that there is less oil remaining (or in our time fewer candles) each night because of what has already been burned. Hillel’s method emphasizes that the miracle of the light continuing is greater each night that the menorah remains lit.

Let’s consider another explanation for Hillel’s method. Great light in the world – the advent of justice, liberty and peace – often appears sudden and bright.  

A wall falls.  A despot flees. An unjust regime collapses. 

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Yet that bright flash of change is always preceded by the near-invisible work of individuals who worked hard over long periods of time to light the spark.

In the United States today, hundreds of organizations and millions of individual Americans are organizing and mobilizing as they have not in decades to bring much about much-needed change in our politics, seeking to replace those who day in and day out are putting personal and party interest above country. 

Complacence may have factored in the election of Donald Trump, but it has since birthed a surge of engagement in public and civic life that can and will breathe new life into our democracy and bring much-needed change to our broken systems. When that change comes – and come it will – we will start restoring civility to our public discourse, returning stability to our foreign policy, and caring for people of all colors, abilities, religions, sexual orientations, and economic classes. 

By lighting one candle at a time, we will bring about the light and energy which will move the United States toward social justice and civil liberties. 

In Israel, too, there is a fight for the soul of the nation. There too, dozens of organizations and thousands of people are working for civil liberties. Others are resisting the brutalization of Palestinians in the West Bank and keeping hope for a two-state solution alive. Government attorneys are struggling to root out corrupt public officials. One candle at a time, these heroes are building a brighter future, sparking change. 

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Even from abroad we have our role to play in bringing light to Israel.  We know just how many of the funders of the settler movement and of right-wing political parties are American – exporting the worst of our dark politics and division. 

That’s why it’s so vital that support for peace-makers and for progressives in Israel should also come from Americans. Organizations such as J Street, the New Israel Fund, and T’ruah provide opportunities for American Jews to educate themselves and to help build a vigorous not-for-profit sector in Israel devoted to justice, civil liberties, and providing help to those who cannot get what they need otherwise. And here at home, these organizations shore up commitment to a two-state solution and support members of Congress who resist annexation of the West Bank and oppose never-ending settlement expansion. 

For many years now, tens of thousands of individuals have been lighting small candles of hope in the US and Israel. Confronted with the darkness of racism and autocracy, their efforts aim to protect the ideals on which both Israel and the US were founded. 

May lighting the menorah this Chanukah remind us that every day it is our responsibility to resist political and economic tyranny. Together, we can and will kindle ever more candles that light the way toward justice, liberty, and peace. 

Large change – when it comes – will appear sudden to the casual observer.  But we will know it was preceded by many people lighting one candle at a time.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the President and Founder of J Street, the political home of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.