Saturday, November 30, 2013

Be A Shammash

This Shabbat was not only Shabbat Chanukah, but also Shabbat Miketz, thus marking the Hebrew anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah some thirty years ago.

I think that the themes of Chanukah and Miketz go together very nicely.  Miketz tells of Joseph's rapid ascent from prisoner to vizier in Egypt, as he becomes second in power only to Pharaoh.  Pharaoh realizes that he needs a partner who can help with the logistics involved in storing and rationing food to help the land survive the oncoming famine.  His courtiers agree that Joseph is the proper man for the task, as they ask, "Can we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?"

Joseph serves as an important helper to Pharaoh, much in the same way that a shammash candle helps to kindle the other lights on the chanukiyah.  We can learn from the example of Joseph, and from the example of the shammash as we seek to find ways that we can make contributions to the communities in which we live.

Jews have been called to serve l'or goyim, as a light unto the nations, sharing God's vision of a perfected world with others.  As we kindle the Chanukah lights, our tradition instructs us to engage in the act of pirsum ha-nes, publicizing the miracle of Chanukah by placing our chanukiyah in a window or other visible location.  In this way, both literally and figuratively, we have the opportunity to illuminate and enhance the dark, cold nights of winter.

Robert Fulghum, in his book It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, tells a story about studying with a Greek philosopher, Dr. Alexander Papaderos (I am paraphrasing the story here, since I do not have the book readily accessible).  At the end of the class, Dr. Papaderos asked the participant if there were any questions.  Fulghum, jokingly, asked, "What is the meaning of life?"

Papaderos paused for a moment, then removed a small round mirror from his wallet.  He told of how he had found the mirror as a boy living in Greece, the remnant of a fragment of a mirror from a wrecked German motorcycle.  He had honed the edges to make it round and smooth, and spent much time playing with it and trying to reflect light into dark crevices.

As Papaderos grew, he noted, the mirror had become more than a game, but a metaphor for how he chose to live his life.  He began to recognize that he was not the light or the source of the light.  But light- which he took to mean truth, knowledge, and understanding- was out there, and it was up to him to reflect it into dark places.

"I am," said Papaderos, "a fragment of a mirror whose exact design and shape I do not know."  Papaderos remarked that the meaning of his life had been to try to reflect light into the dark places of the world- and to hope that others would see him doing so, and be inspired to do the same.

We can follow Papaderos' example.  Like his mirror, the shammash is not the key light; it is not what most people focus on.  But it is essential for bringing brightness into our world.

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