This past Yom Kippur, reflecting on the work that we are called upon to do in these times, I invoked the image of Hanukkah. And now that we have entered that holiday, I revisit those words and, slightly revised, I share them again:
I’ve been inspired recently by the author Courtney Martin who wrote a book on social justice called, Do It Anyway. Her point, told through profiles of contemporary, young social justice activists, is that the mission of previous generations to “save the world” is ultimately impossible. We are not going to save the world, but rather than this realization leading to defeat, we must do the small acts that will both impact others and sustain us.
She writes, “We must hold these large-scale revolutions in our hearts while tackling small, radical acts every day with our hands. We must wake up wondering how we might fail at changing absolutely everything in such a way that we manage to change a little something.” She calls this “good failure,” that our actions may not “save the world,” but we do it anyway.
As we descend deeper into the darkness of winter, we turn to the lights of Hanukkah. We celebrate that story of the Hasmoneans who fought a rebellion against their oppressors, who established independence for the Jewish community, and who restored the Holy Temple after its desecration.
We recall the story of the oil, in which in the course of that rededication the Maccabees had hoped to relight the menorah, the lamp that provided a perpetual flame. And as the story goes, they only found enough sanctified oil to last one day, but the oil lasted for eight days, enough time for a steady supply of sanctified oil to be produced. Hence our eight-day celebration.
We often call this the miracle of Hanukkah—that this small supply of oil lasted eight times as long as expected.
But I disagree.
The real miracle of Hanukkah is that with only a small supply of oil, anticipating that it will burn out after only one day, realizing that the Temple would revert to its unholy state as before it was rededicated, coming so far to fall short in their ultimate goal—the real miracle of Hanukkah, is that they lit it anyway.
They lit it anyway. That is the miracle of Hanukkah. Not knowing what would happen, they lit it anyway.
As we light these candles over the course of these eight days, let us remember that each individual light joins with the others to create even greater light, just as each individual action joins with others to create an even greater action.
Only have a limited amount of resources to spare? Do it anyway.
Don’t think your one contribution will make an impact? Do it anyway.
Feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s problems? Do it anyway.
We will not have changed everything, but we will have changed something. We may not “save the world,” but we will have helped someone, or ourselves.
And that itself is a miracle.