Ambassadors of Light

Friday, November 30, 2018 / 22 Kislev 5779

Summary: Rabbi Kosak notes that it has now been a month since the terror attack in Pittsburgh. He speaks of some of the changes that violence has forced upon us. Finally, he shares an optimistic lesson that Chanukah provides us in this new climate.

Ambassadors of Light

This past Wednesday marked the sheloshim, the thirtieth day since the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Jewish custom has established guideposts by which we observe and mourn. The periods of time closest to a death are considered to carry our deepest grief; as time passes, the intensity of our pain tends to lessen. Accompanying us in this emotional journey is a ritual pathway in which we slowly reintroduce normalcy into our days.

To mark the sheloshim, many communities across the country held special prayer services. Here in Portland, this was marked at the Rose Schnitzer manor. Unfortunately, my teaching duties kept me from attending. These reflections stand as my way of taking note of the occasion, of the tremendous loss of life, and the pernicious endurance of hate in general, and anti-semitism in particular.

Public figures often like to declaim that we don’t let terrorists win. Yet we know they do. This singular act of terror has already cost the Jewish community millions of dollars. As our institutions take on enhanced and costly security measures, many Jewish organizations will find their mission-driven programming diminished. Terror is used by those who hate precisely because of its outsized efficacy. These despicable events change our landscapes, our resource allocation—even how welcoming certain organizations can be to the stranger.

For the last thirty days, we have been operating at high gear in the security realm. While Neveh Shalom already was ahead of many synagogues in our preparedness, we have moved rapidly to bring our security practices and protocols closer to top tier. Last night, our board of directors engaged in an extended discussion to further harden our building, and more importantly, to protect the bodies of those who come here to be nourished Jewishly. In the coming days, our congregants will receive a letter with information about some of our next steps. Please look out for that, and bear in mind that best practices demands that we do not discuss the specifics we take, as that itself poses a security risk.

Of all the ways terror wins, the most dangerous outcome is the manner in which it can pollute our inner realm. Not so long ago, a great many people felt secure; in the aftermath of Pittsburgh, the sad reality is that a large number of individuals are walking scared. It is to this inner dimension that the tools of our religion so often direct us. Faith and the brilliance of our many teachers provide us the guides we need to live fearlessly and with joy. Indeed, if there is any way in which we can say that terror does not win, it is in our willingness to seek out joy as a counter to despair and fear.

Just this week, I was studying a teaching of R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson with Rabbi Motti Wilhelm. Reb Motti is one of my monthly chevruta partners with whom I set aside time to learn. I thank him for bringing me this particular text.

Reb Schneerson’s teaching offered several insights. He noted that while our Chanukah lights are based on the menorah used first in our ancient tent of meeting and then in the Temple, there are several key differences.

1. In the Temple, the menorah was lit during the daylight hours, while the chanukiyah, or Chanukah menorah, is ignited as dusk gives way to evening.

2.In the Temple, the menorah was lit within the building and thus out of sight, whereas our custom is to light the chanukiyah on our doorsteps or at least in an outward facing window.

3.In the Temple, the same number of candles were lit each day, while on Chanukah we add another light each day.

4.Finally, the menorah was lit when the Temple still stood, and therefore when peace reigned in the land and the nation was secure. In the time of the Maccabees, however, security was non-existent, and Jews fought not just against a greater enemy, but amongst ourselves as well. In other words, it was a time of literal and figurative darkness.

From these several distinctions, Rabbi Schneerson learned how we should respond to our own times of darkness. First, we should not allow ourselves to let the darkness of the world penetrate into our homes. Rather, in dim days such as these, we must march out into the street and though effort and sacrifice, spread our light outward. As we do so, we should view ourselves as God’s ambassadors. Moreover, just as each additional night that the small container of oil miraculously burned, we should view our own efforts to spread light as itself miraculous.

There is a tendency that when things get hard, we sense the natural limits of our power, and turn inward or lower our ambitions. It is our capacity to realize that each of us is indeed miraculous, however, that can help us overcome our fear. Throughout history, some of the greatest and most accomplished people have explained the secret to their success: they simply believed, against all rational considerations, that they could achieve. That is the concept of adding another candle to each night of Chanukah.

We Jews are a practical people. We believe that God helps those who help themselves (b’derekh s’adam rotzeh leilekh, bah molikhin oto). Yet we also are a nation that believes in miracles. That we, a tiny people, are still here despite millennia of active hatred and persecution, is nothing short of miraculous.

There will always be those who want us to be fearful, to shrink and doubt ourselves. Chanukah reminds each of us to grab hold of the miraculous. For when we do, no fear can constrain us, and all that is left is the burning light of our own joyous freedom. May we all enjoy that spiritual blessing.

Chag Urim Sameach,

Rav D




  1. Recall miraculous moments in your own life. Can you recapture how you felt at the moment?
  2. Fear holds us back. When we are in its grips, it seems completely realistic to be fearful. Can you think of a time when you overcame a fear? What enabled you to do so?
  3. How have you tried to be a source of light in the past weeks? In what ways can you take public actions in the next week or two to bring your light out into the world?

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