Chanukah time: the smells of foods cooking in oil; the beautiful lights which increase night by night; the sounds of songs and prayers being sung and chanted. I love it all.
One song in particular resonates quite powerfully for me this year. In truth, it has been among my favorites ever since I first heard back in 1983. A newly ordained rabbi, I travelled with friends from New York City to Tanglewood in the Berkshires of Massachusetts for a Peter, Paul and Mary concert. Word was that Peter had written a new song with a Chanukah theme. I was intrigued – and as always, excited to see and hear PP&M. Unbeknownst to me, one of my friends recorded the concert, including Peter’s new song. I spent most of the ride back to Manhattan winding and rewinding the tape as I tried to capture the lyrics on paper. Once home, I grabbed my guitar as I worked to figure out the chords. I was pumped!
Light one candle, for the Maccabee children. Give thanks that their light didn’t die!
I loved it from the very first time I heard it from the stage that evening in Tanglewood’s shed.
Light one candle for the pain we endured, when our rights to exist were denied.
The song took our people’s sorrowful history and linked it to life in the world we inhabit today. What a great teaching tool!
Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice, justice and freedom demand.
The song doesn’t just link us to our past, it forcefully challenges us to live our values in the present.
Light one candle for the strength that we need, to never become our own foes.
Oh how these words stab at me against the backdrop of our day-to-day national political discourse.
Light one candle for those who are suffering, the pains we learned so long ago
We Jews know the pain of being called “other.” We dare not remain silent. We must raise our voices, together with people other faiths to stem the tide of hate and vitriol being spewed across our land.
Light one candle for all we believe in; Let anger not tear us apart.
The venom and bile of the Presidential campaign and in the halls of Congress do not represent the America I dream of. I know I’m not alone.
And light one candle to bind us together, with peace as the song in our heart.
Peter’s words were tearing at my heart soul with a new urgency. Singing Light One Candle in a time of terror, but even more, against the backdrop of the discourse across our nation as Presidential candidates such as Donald Trump and others posit hateful stances towards “the other” – in this case, Muslims at large. I felt my heart cracking. Light one candle for the pain we endured, when our rights to exist were denied. Even as we grapple as a nation, and as a world, with the horrors of ISIS and other terrorist groups, we dare not allow ourselves to fall prey to absolutist xenophobia and hateful demagoguery.
In the song’s final stanza we ask:
What is the memory that’s valued so highly. That we keep alive in that flame?
We challenge ourselves:
What’s the commitment to those who have died, that we cry out: “They’ve not died in vain!”
We must gird ourselves:
We have come this far, always believing, that justice will somehow prevail
In these days of physical darkness, and this time when fear, hatred and intolerance are being offered as public policy and a national value, let us remember:
This is the burden, and this is the promise; And this is why we CAN not fail. (Forgive me Peter Yarrow, a slight emendation)
Many are linking the hateful verbiage, especially within our political discourse with “the pains we learned so long ago.” We dare not lose sight of the message Peter Yarrow implanted within his Light One Candle. For me, it’s more than a folk song. As I sang with our Cantor and community this past Friday night; and again with our Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade students and parents just this morning, I hear these words as a call to action. This is not just a link to the past. It’s a call in our present so that we may look towards a just and peaceful future. In the words of Peter’s refrain:
Don’t let the light go out, It’s lasted for so many years!
Don’t let the light go out. Let it shine through our love and our tears!
Let us cause it to shine through our concerns , and our fears!