Rekindling the Jewish flame

By Naftali Schiff, January 17, 2014
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I often marvel at the extent to which the simplest objects can mean so much - a gift from a loved one, a personal letter, etc. The best, almost universal example is a candle. For millennia, the small flame of a candle has held enormous significance for countless cultures and civilisations – none more so than the Jews. We are forever lighting candles, whether for Shabbat, to mark a yahrzeit, on Chanucah, for Havdalah, and so on. As Jews, we place a great deal of emphasis on creating and maintaining a flame, whether celebrating good times or navigating darkness and confusion. Many years ago, one of my daughters was told by a kindergarten teacher that "Jews light candles, we never extinguish them" - the power of that idea has remained with me ever since.

I was particularly reminded of this sentiment when the events of 9/11 changed the world dramatically. At first there was a groundswell of moral outrage, and a remarkable atmosphere of determination to do more good and build a better world. Yet, in a matter of months, that had all but entirely dissipated - we were left with little more than extended queues for security at airports and a proud memorial to remind us of what had happened.

On that day, a handful of determined men had brought the Western world to a standstill. Where was the equivalent amongst the good people of the world? Where was the act of selfless positivity that would shake the foundations of our society for the better? I remember concluding that tragically it is always so much easier to break down and destroy, than to create something new and valuable; to extinguish takes one blow, but to ignite demands so much energy.

I wonder if, as a community, particularly of late, we have got a little carried away with "turning away from evil" and allowed "doing good" to take second place? Have we spent so much time and energy telling our children what they can't do as Jews, that they no longer know or are excited about what they can do?

Young Jews need to hear what lights us up

Could it be that we have spent so much time being against, that we are in danger of losing sight of what we are for?

I would even go so far as to say that at Aish UK we need to make the subtle shift away from fighting "against" intermarriage and assimilation to being "for" continuity and authentic Jewish values and commitment.

I recently joined the Conference of European Rabbis at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, a stone's throw from the spot where 80 years ago, Hitler brazenly announced his plans for a 1,000 year Reich, supremacy of the Aryan race and the demise of the Jewish people. Just two generations ago, my grandfather fled Germany in 1933 after Nazi hoodlums smeared faeces on the door of his legal practice, a few hundred yards from where I was standing. Yet, there we were, singing "Ani Ma'amin - I have faith" - and "Utzu Eitza Vetufar"- the nations shall take negative counsel against us - it will come to nothing".

Is not about time we reminded ourselves that we are living in perhaps the most privileged generation of the past two Jewish millenia? We overcame all. We have Israel and in Europe we live as free Jews. And yet, despite this unprecedented attainment, we insist in defining ourselves by those with whom we disagree and by what we will not do. That in itself is a failure of Jewish values.

We must urgently find ways to inspire our younger generation as to what is wonderful about being Jewish. They've heard us talk too much about the lights we want to extinguish, now let them hear about the fire that we want to rekindle.

Rabbi Naftali Schiff is chief executive of Aish UK

    Last updated: 6:27pm, January 17 2014