Judith (and) Light
I hope you are enjoying Chanukah, the “festival of lights.”
As I write that, I realize that this week there were numerous references to light. Let me explain.
Monday early morning, I was walking my dogs and noticed the very clear sky, the shining crescent moon, and a very bright light directly under it. I wondered what it was. I, of course, Googled to learn that is was the planet Venus. It was quite a beautiful sight, while learning that Venus is actually the 3rd-brightest celestial body, after the sun and moon, for us on earth to see.
Later this week, I read news reports about President Bush’s funeral. His son, George W. Bush, delivered a eulogy reminiscing about his father and the lessons he and his siblings learned about the importance of public service and how to live a life with grace, humility, and kindness.
"He was a genuinely optimistic man," Bush said. "And that optimism guided his children, and made each of us believe that anything was possible." He added, “To us, his was the brightest of a thousand points of light,” referring to the phrase popularized by his father when he accepted the presidential nomination at the 1988 Republican National Convention.
But back to Chanukah. Many of us have heard the debate between Hillel and Shammai on how to light the menorah.
Hillel said we should start with the smallest amount of light and increase each day (add one candle each night); Shammai said to start with the greatest amount of light and reduce the light each day (start with all eight candles and remove one candle each night).
The Talmud gives us the legal arguments behind their respective opinions. Shammai said we should celebrate the days that are left, while Hillel said we should celebrate the days that have passed because of how the Chanukah miracle occurred. After the Jews discovered one pure cruse of oil and lit it, the miracle was that the cruse of oil would burn for seven more nights. And so, on the second night, Shammai would have you light seven candles, reflecting the seven miracles to come. But Hillel reasoned that because that little cruse of oil started to burn into its second night, you light two candles on the second night.
From another perspective, Hillel tells us to grow the light, to make it increase as the miracle unfolds. Shammai tells us to shrink the light, to reduce it as the miracle winds down. Hillel’s viewpoint has become our tradition, yet it is said that when the Messiah comes we will switch to Shammai’s way.
As part of the Chanukah celebration, the Jewish Federation, along with JPRO (a networking group for professionals in Jewish organizations), sponsored a party for everyone to come together. It was a real delight to honor people who work so hard every day on behalf of our community. We look forward to JPRO expanding its reach and strengthening the bonds, connections, and relationships between professionals across our system.
At the Chanukah party I shared a story that I learned just that morning about a hero named Judith. She is not mentioned in the Torah and the earliest known stories about her are not written in Hebrew, but in Greek.
Judith's story starts in Jerusalem a few hundred years before Judah’s story of the Maccabean revolt. A widow of three years, she has been in deep mourning, only wearing rags and ashes. Her children are on the brink of starvation, as her city is under siege by the evil Holofernes and his armies, who has been sent by King Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonian Empire to conquer the city and convert the Jews living there. Though they had fought back against Holofernes as best they could, the Israelites were ready to surrender.
But Judith is not. Determined her city will not fall, she devises a plan and convinces her people she can singlehandedly defeat their enemies. That night, Judith changes from her mourning clothes and dresses in her finest jewels, and, with wine and her maid, she leaves the city in the dark.
Alone, the two women walk into the enemy’s camp and straight up to the royal tent. Struck by her beauty, Holofernes asks, “Who are you? Where do you come from and where do you wish to go?”
Judith responds, “I have heard of your wisdom and skill, and since Israel has sinned, I know that you will conquer the city and take possession of it, so I came to save myself and my father’s household when you take the city.” And so, she promises to help Holofernes conquer the city from the inside. He invites her into his tent, intending to seduce her. She follows him.
Inside, Holofernes indulges in a feast, with Judith feeding him salty cheese (thus, making him thirsty) and pouring him more and more wine. Soon, Holofernes falls asleep. Judith grabs the sword on his bedpost, and in one swift motion, beheads Holofernes as he slept.
Judith then takes the head of Holofernes in her bag and swiftly leaves the tent with her maid. The two return unnoticed back to the city walls, where she commands the guards to put his head up high for all of Holofernes’s armies to see upon sunrise.
When they wake, all of Holofernes men see what has become of him and flee. Jerusalem is safe, thanks to Judith’s actions.
At one point, this story was told alongside that of the Maccabees. Perhaps it is time to bring it back?
Whether Judith or Judah saving our people, natural wonders, or leaders who provide hope and inspiration, let us always remember that no matter how much darkness surrounds us, we have the power to shine light on all that is great in our world – all the time.