Light, and the amplitude of life

Thursday, November 19, 2020 | 3 Kislev 5781


And announcing a new initiative for college students: Campus-at-Camp – at Isabella Freedman – spring ’21.
Applications opened today and close December 4th.


Dear All,

I’m feeling intensely the amplitude of life right now. One of the things that I learned from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – z”l; who died since last I wrote to this list – is the distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism, he taught, is the expectation that things will get better. Hope, by contrast, lacks that certitude or even that expectation – but it consists of a vision of a better future, and a determination to work to create it.

And that is this pregnant moment in human history and in American history. So much that is broken, scary, messed-up, pointed in the wrong direction, alarming. And so much that is good, that presages new possibilities, new building from the wreckage, new structures, new ideas.

This is what the Hebrew month of Kislev is. Kislev began two days ago, and it heralds Chanukah, which starts three weeks from tonight. I was talking to a journalist yesterday who wanted to know what the significance of Chanukah was or could be in relation to the “environmental crisis” (itself a weird shorthand, in a way, for something so immense and so huge; nothing less than an understanding that we need to radically rethink how we live on this planet, with each other and with the living systems that sustain us).

And I said, well, in the plainest sense, the Chanukah miracle – the one cruze of oil lasting for eight days – is a fine metaphor for the need we have to use things more carefully, to make things last, to consume less. To take less oil and coal out of the earth and let it stay where it is – for eight times longer than our current rate of extraction, at a minimum – so that we give ourselves the possibility of resetting. And I said – also true – that for Chanukah, and Christmas, we should give fewer objects, buy fewer things, and instead give love, give experiences, give or share things we already have.

But this is obvious, in a way. The deeper truth of Chanukah, I think, is indeed about hope. About light in the darkness. The days get shorter and shorter, and our little inner pagan wonders: will the light disappear into nothing? Will the dark encroach and encircle us? Will we never see sunlight again?

That we light candles up – increasing from one to eight, over the eight nights (as Hillel taught; rather than down from eight to one, as Shammai taught) is an existential statement of hope. It’s a belief, a commitment, to bring light. That light will come – and that we will help to bring it.

And, to be clear, I write this to remind myself, to teach myself, to challenge myself. I have found this recent period very hard. I have been quite down in many ways. I have struggled to get things done, to get out of bed, to cope with so much in the world which feels overwhelming.

And I’m not a person of theological faith. I’m in awe of these people who really do seem to have a traditional faith. I just don’t, I don’t have that bone in my body. I have a deep sense of the wisdom of Jewish tradition, and a considerable sense of humility in relation to it. The tradition is wiser than I am, than we are. And so I think about the Jews who lit those candles: the year after the Temple was destroyed, and ten years later, and then after Bar Kochba; who lit candles in Portugal and Spain, after the expulsions; in England, after the massacres; in Poland in 1648, in Berlin in 1933, and 1939, and 1946… And I do not see Jewish history as a litany of destruction or anti-Semitism; I absolutely do not. My point is different: not that we have often been attacked, viciously, but rather that our world has been destroyed, or we have been amidst great despair… but we just kept on lighting candles. We kept on celebrating. We kept on insisting that every person was made in the image of G!d. We committed to education and literacy, to educating our children, supporting our needy, helping our neighbors – Jewish or not – and just pressing on.

So… chodesh tov. Happy Kislev. Happy Chanukah. Merry Christmas.

And if you want to bring light in tangible ways, here are some closing things to think about, in roughly chronological order:

  • Announcing Campus-at-Camp for college students – a unique 8-week experience at Isabella Freedman! We’re partnering with Hillel to offer a unique 8-week college campus experience at Isabella Freedman. You can take classes virtually wherever you are – and have a unique Jewish experience, designed specifically for students who would otherwise be living and studying at home. Click here for information and to apply now! Applications are open through December 4th and will be accepted on a first-come-first-served basis. Feel free to forward this to any college student you know who might like to join us!
  • Our Vision Rides (our virtual make-up for the physical rides we couldn’t hold) ends on December 1st, which is Giving Tuesday. Click here to see our riders. Feel free to randomly sponsor one of them – maybe especially one of our teens? – or sign up yourself and do something – go on a big walk or ride or swim, and get out there, and give money to Hazon – and maybe even ask a couple of other people to do so also. Every mile and dollar helps.
  • 2021 is a new year! (We know that. But it really is a new year. A new president being inaugurated on January 20th. Covid vaccines on their way. I think we’re ready for a new year). It’s a time for new resolutions:

(1) please commit to the Brit Hazon! It’s just three things: make some further change in your own behavior, to live more sustainably; give at least some time and money to organizations doing this work; and raise your voice, in any institution of which you are part, to say, shouldn’t we be developing a serious plan for sustainability…

(2) …and you can do that by joining the Hazon Seal of Sustainability. Have that be your organizational new year’s resolution for 2021. Let’s commit to a multi-year process of change. Email if you’d like to join one of our new cohorts in the new year;

(3) plan your Tu B’Shvat celebrations now. It’s not just fruit and nuts. Not just for kids. It’s the evening of Jan 27th – one week after the inauguration. Invite someone who’s environmentally knowledgeable – locally or nationally. Invite your mayor or congressperson. Have the conversation – we’re Jewish; we’re a Jewish institution. It’s the “new year for trees.” What does that mean? What’s happening in the world? What can or should we do? We’re planning big things for that week, stay tuned for more

And if you want to order something from the library – for yourself, for Chanukah – I commend two older Jonathan Sacks books, both currently out of print: from 1997, The Politics of Hope, and from 2004, From Optimism to Hope.

Chodesh tov, shabbat shalom,

Nigel Signature