Reverber8: Hanukkah 5773
One man took a stand. One family started a rebellion. One cruse of oil was found after the revolution and miraculously provided light for eight days.
Hanukkah is the great reminder of the reverberative potential within each individual and every act. This year, we'll share some of our favorite stories of reverberation - testimonies to the great and eternal truth that every one has the potential to change everyone.
Hannukah sameah - we hope it is a holiday of laughter, light and a renewed sense of purpose for all of you.
Night 7 - Where the Light Comes Through
After years of working with cancer patients, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen determined that anger is often an expression of a person's will to live. She tells an extraordinary story about a college football player who came to see her after being diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma. Only two weeks after his diagnosis, his right leg had to be removed and his life changed forever. A college athlete, he had always been surrounded by rowdy friends, beautiful women and fancy cars, but after the surgery he was filled with rage and became dangerously self-destructive. He hated everyone - the doctors, his former friends, anyone who was healthy. In a counseling session she asked him to draw a picture of himself and he angrily drew a vase with a huge, dark crack through it.
Then one day he came in with an article cut out from the local newspaper - a story about a man who had lost his leg in a motorcycle accident. A few days later, he brought in a story about a woman burned in a fire, and then one about a boy who lost part of his hand. These stories made him even more angry - only reinforcing how unfair the world was and how little the doctors understood about human suffering. But after some time, he asked if he could maybe visit a patient or two who had lost a limb, like he had. Within a couple of weeks, he was making regular visits in the surgical ward to young people who had lost arms and legs.
On one of his visits, he met a young woman whose mother, sister and cousin had died from breast cancer. The woman decided - at 21 - to have both of her breasts removed preventatively, to reduce her own likelihood of cancer. When he first met her, she wouldn't even look at him - she just lay in bed staring at the wall. He tried desperately to get her attention, eventually dropping his artificial leg to the ground and doing a silly dance around her. Finally, she looked up and burst out laughing. 'If you can still dance,' she said, 'maybe I can still sing.'
The man and woman became close friends and began visiting patients in the hospital together, bringing laughter and hope to people in their darkest moments, showing them that survival was possible even if their lives looked radically different than they ever imagined. The two soon fell deeply in love and got married. Years later, the man went back to see Dr. Remen, who showed him the picture of the vase he had drawn shortly after his diagnosis and surgery. 'It's not really finished,' he told her, drawing yellow beams of light pouring out of the thick, dark crack. 'This is where the light comes through.'
One moment of illuminated awareness, a moment of realizing we can still see someone else's pain despite our own, this has the potential to change our lives. Sometimes the very place of our own struggle is precisely where the light comes through. And when it does, it has the power to bring light to everyone around us as well.
Hanukkah sameah and Shabbat shalom -
Rabbi Sharon Brous
Night 6 - Get Off the Bus
Tonight, a story you already know - in the spirit of the holiday, when we tell and retell the greatest stories of challenge and triumph.
Rosa was just a little girl when she realized there was a black world and a white world, and it was the city bus that awakened her to the gap between the two. She and the other black kids in the neighborhood would walk all the way to their elementary school in Pine Level, Alabama in the blazing heat and the heavy rain, while big school buses would breeze by transporting the white kids to their schools. The transportation system had for years been a volatile fault line of race relations in the South, and Rosa recognized as a child that history had placed her on the beleaguered side. 'I'd see the bus pass every day,' she said, years later. 'But to me, that was a way of life; we had no choice but to accept what was the custom.'
Rosa was arrested for violating Alabama bus segregation laws, and had to decide if she would accept the penalty or fight the case. Her family pleaded with her not to fight. 'The white folks will kill you, Rosa,' her husband said. But she sensed that the moment was bigger than she was. 'If you think it will mean something to Montgomery and do some good,' she said, 'I'll be happy to do it.' Within hours, the black community of Montgomery began to organize with a real sense of urgency. The Women's Political Council met in the middle of the night at Alabama State and drafted a letter to the community: Until we do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or you, or you. They called for a one day boycott of the buses of Montgomery. At the end of the day, 15,000 people showed up for a mass action at the Church on Holt Street and a 26 year old Martin Luther King, Jr., about to deliver his first public address, turned to one of his friends and said, 'You know... this could turn into something big.'
It did. One day of boycott turned into 381 days of boycott, which compelled the US Supreme Court to rule the segregation law unconstitutional and force the integration of the Montgomery buses, which prompted a decade of non-violent mass protests that dramatically shifted the course of our nation, making possible things that had previously been utterly unimaginable.
Tonight, David and I are celebrating Hanukkah at the White House with the President and Mrs. Obama. And I shiver to think that none of this would have been possible had it not been for the reverberative power of one dedicated person and one act of extraordinary courage, which ignited a community, transformed the country and changed the world.
Happy 6th night -
Rabbi Sharon Brous
Night 5 - Oops
For tonight, one of my favorite stories of an attempt to do good that went terribly wrong, which made it even more right. When Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn lived in China in the 90s, they met a skinny young girl named Dai Manju who lived with her family in a home with no electricity, no water, no possessions of any sort and a giant pig. Despite her desperate poverty, she was a star student in her rural elementary school, a four mile walk from her home. By the time Dai Manju reached 6th grade, her parents could no longer afford the $13 annual tuition to her school so she was forced to drop out. But she dreamt of becoming the first person in her family to complete elementary school, so she would stand outside the schoolhouse picking up scraps of paper, hoping to learn something even though her parents could not pay.
Kristof wrote a story in the New York Times about Dai Manju and the travesty of a child yearning for an education but deprived of the opportunity to learn. Moved by the column, a reader living in New York donated $10,000 to pay for her education. The school was ecstatic - it not only covered Dai Manju's tuition, but gave them the opportunity to construct a proper school building and provide scholarships for all the girls in the region. Seeing the extraordinary impact of the contribution, Kristof contacted the donor to offer a report, saying, 'You wouldn't believe how much difference $10,000 will make in a Chinese village.' 'But I didn't give $10,000,' the donor replied. 'I gave $100.'
It turned out that the bank had made a processing error, accidentally wiring over $10,000 rather than $100. But when confronted with the necessity of shutting down the village school in order to retrieve the money, the bank graciously offered the difference as a donation.
Dai Manju finished elementary, high school and accounting school. She found a job as an accountant and then helped a number of old friends from the village get jobs as well. She sent home so much money to her parents that they became among the wealthiest villagers - able to afford a stove and television and move the pig into a backhouse. Her friends, who had benefitted from the scholarships as well, also got good jobs and were able to send home money to support their families too. By the time Dai Manju was 30, she was an executive in a large corporation and thinking of starting her own company.
A girl's unwavering dedication to learning inspired a gift. A bank clerk's careless error multiplied that gift exponentially. And from there the reverberative power of education went into effect as lives were changed, new possibilities were born and an entire region flourished.
The power of one. Isn't that something?
Enjoy your fifth night -
Rabbi Sharon Brous
Night 4 - What Love Is
From the time he was a child, Avi cared deeply for Israel and dreamt of serving in the Israel Defense Forces. As soon as he turned 18, he made aliyah and served with distinction as a combat soldier, eventually training elite units in counter-terrorism. After three years, he returned to the United States to study International Relations and Middle East Studies at Brown University.
Avi was a fierce advocate for the Jewish State and deeply committed to peace with the Palestinians. 'I have a dream of peace,' he once wrote. 'I desire it more than anything, and have devoted my life to it.'
In his first few months at Brown, Avi worked to create space for authentic dialogue between people with differing views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He quickly became known as a voice of reason and compassion. He called himself a 'soldier for peace,' writing 'I went to the army so that my children will not have to,' a dream he said he feared might not come true.
Avi's life was tragically cut short in February of 2010 when he was hit by a drunk driver while walking back to his dorm room on campus.
Avi's family responded to their grief by establishing a Fund in his name and in his memory, dedicated to promoting the values and ideals that inspired Avi in his lifetime: empathy, mutual respect and active listening. Leagues of students have already benefitted from the work of the Fund, which brings Israelis and Palestinians together to establish personal relationships, in an effort to manifest the teaching at the heart of Avi's work, which he learned from his father: 'An enemy is someone whose story you have not yet heard.'
'In just 21 years, Avi became a living testament to the idea that one committed individual can truly make a difference. His example leaves an indelible mark on this world in the lives of the people who knew him, and the thousands more inspired by his legacy of activism and compassion.' Tonight, let's honor Avi's memory, and reaffirm the power of one - one who lives with love and passion, with deep commitment and great aspirations - to inspire many.
And may his memory be a blessing.
Rabbi Sharon Brous
PS. Learn more about Avi and the Fund at
Night 3 –Abraham’s Son
Rabbi Sharon Brous
Night 2 - The Dream
This past summer on a trip to Liberia with American Jewish World Service, I met Leymah Gbowee. In 2003, she was in her late 20s - married to an abusive man, mother of four children with no work and no money. Her home and her hometown had been devastated by fourteen years of civil war. The country was in shambles and Leymah was paralyzed by despair.
One night, she had a strange dream in which a voice told her to gather the women and pray for peace. She wasn't sure what it meant, but she felt compelled to take the message seriously and began to mobilize the women to pray. She posted signs all around the capital city of Monrovia calling the women to meet her at the fish market to protest the violence and force the warlords and the government to lay down their arms.
The morning of the protest, she arrived at the empty fish market early, and wondered what she would do if nobody came. But then, as the sun rose, she stood in shock as thousands and thousands of women poured into the market from all corners of the city, proclaiming one simple message: "We want peace. No more war." At the end of the day, they vowed to return to the market every day - wearing white T-shirts and scarves, sitting in the blazing sun and pouring rain - declaring that they would not move until the men made peace.
The militias and the government were known for their brutality - they could easily have killed every last one of those women. I asked one of the women involved if she was scared. "We were not afraid," she said. "Either we will die from war, or we will die fighting to make peace." Day after day they appeared, staring down generals, warlords and soldiers. Leymah, like Queen Esther before her, stood before the President, Charles Taylor, and cried out:
The women of Liberia are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging [for food]... We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand to secure the future of our children. Because we believe, as custodians of our society, that tomorrow our children will ask us, 'Mama, what was your role during the crisis?'
The women won. President Taylor was forced to step down and the 40,000 rebels had to disarm, waiting on lines around the country to turn in their guns and grenades. And last year, Leymah Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Liberia is still desperately poor and faces extraordinary challenges, but this story is a testament to the power of one woman with a dream to change the world.
I don't honestly know how Leymah and the women found the strength to do what they did. Maybe things had gotten so awful that they felt they had no choice. Maybe they found their courage together - as sisters. Maybe they felt the presence of God within them, and realized what the Maccabees figured out when they rose up against the Greek-Syrian rule: that human beings deserve to be free. That God gives strength to the righteous. And that we must be brave and fight for our own liberation. Tonight as we light, let's think about how one dream rippled out and transformed an entire nation. And let's consider what it would take for us to take our own dreams seriously.
Happy second night -
Rabbi Sharon Brous
PS. We have an amazing opportunity at IKAR this Shabbat (Dec. 15) to hear from Cecelia Danuweli, one of the Liberian women I met this summer who worked with Leymah in the nonviolent protest movement and helped bring an end to the war . Cecilia is an activist and peacemaker who is working now to make justice, equality and peace a reality as the nation recovers.
Night 1 - Cream Cheese
Several years ago a friend of mine - a big, important advertising guy - was waiting for a plane to a big, important advertising conference. Anxious, distracted and hungry, he walked to the closest food stand and, true to his New York Jewish roots, ordered a bagel and cream cheese. The woman behind the counter handed him a bagel and explained that they were out of cream cheese. "Out of cream cheese? How do you sell a bagel with no cream cheese!" he shouted, with the kind of righteous indignation usually reserved for confrontations with ticket agents when one's flight is delayed. The woman looked up at my friend and calmly said, "Sir, I saw my parents and my children killed in El Salvador. Everything happens in this life. And you're going to worry about cream cheese?"
Within days, my friend left his business and started a non-profit consulting firm. He has now worked with hundreds of NGOs to help their leaders amplify their voices as social change agents. He never found the woman in the airport again, but to this day he credits her for helping him rediscover the clarity and sense of purpose he needed.
He could have walked away annoyed, but instead he allowed himself to be transformed. And now he's working to transform the world.
What about you? Tonight as you light, open your heart to the holy hints being dropped around you. Something needs to change - are you listening?
Rabbi Sharon Brous
P.S. Need a quick refresher on lighting? Watch this video.