A Bright Vulnerable Light

Posted on December 6, 2023
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Dr. Eliezer Jones

In our recent LEAD Live session, we delved into the topic of vulnerability, emphasizing that it is not a weakness but rather a strength in leadership. While vulnerability wasn’t initially on the session agenda, its relevance I want to believe emerged as we were a day away from the celebration of Chanukah, a holiday that underscores the significance of vulnerability—something that is increasingly essential.

NCSY consists of eight “candles”: NCSYers, JSU students, regional staff, national staff, leadership, donors, board members, and community leaders. Together, these components illuminate NCSY. Yet, amidst these candles, we must not overlook the Shammash. Although it stands above the rest, it is not technically a mitzvah candle. As Rabbi Menachem Posner writes, “the shammash serves as a lesson to educators and leaders everywhere. The shammash is not a mitzvah candle. Yet, it is important because it is the instrument that enables all the other candles to form a mitzvah.”

Much like the candles on the Menorah, “each of us has the potential to be a shammash.” Being the tallest candle on the Menorah is not about power, prestige, or respect; it’s about responsibility, humility, and making a difference without expecting fanfare. It’s about truly spreading the light in this world, as is the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah.

When I reflect on Chanukah, a story comes to mind that I heard at an Ebbing many years ago. It revolves around a crossing guard at a railroad crossing, a figure back in the day responsible for preventing accidents in the absence of modern automatic gates. A crossing guard would be in a shack by the railroad crossing, equipped with the train schedule, a lantern, and the task of waving the lantern to warn cars that a train was approaching.

Despite the presence of a crossing guard, a tragic crash occurred one stormy night. Subsequently, a lawsuit ensued, questioning who was at fault—was it the car, the train, or the crossing guard?

During the courtroom proceedings, the judge directs his inquiries to the crossing guard. “Were you there that night?” he begins. Under oath, the crossing guard affirms, “Yes.” The judge continues, “Did you have your train schedule?” The crossing guard replies, “Yes.” “Were you standing in the road at the appropriate time waving your lantern?” asks the judge. Again, the crossing guard answers, “Yes.” Ultimately, the judge rules in favor of the railroad, absolving them of liability for the tragedy. As the crossing guard leaves the courtroom, a bystander overhears him exclaim, “Whew, sure am glad they didn’t ask whether the lamp was lit.”

Chanukah is about taking public and meaningful action. We light the Menorah where others can witness it, publicizing the miracle as an act of Jewish pride. This action communicates our identity, values, and willingness to shine our light, regardless of external darkness. It’s not just about thinking or talking about it; as illustrated by the crossing guard in our story. By lighting the Menorah for the world to see, we declare our belief in Hashem, our pride in being part of the Jewish people, and our commitment to making a difference, even if it means being uncomfortable and embracing vulnerability by shining a light on who we are. It is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Many Jews, myself included, feel that we are living in dark times, with Jewish lights extinguished by hate, others held against their will in darkness, and more threatened daily by the dark hate within the hearts of those who wish us destroyed. Yet, let the role of the shammash guide us through this darkness. Let us find ways to illuminate our Jewish pride brightly, bringing light to darkened places and empowering others to shine brightly and proudly. In fact, just look in the mirror as this is the work you do every single day. You bring so much light into the JSU clubs, Latte and Learnings, Shabbatonim and more. When you look at your Shammash this year, know its light is a reflection of the beautiful light you bring to this world every single day. A light that you bring with great vulnerability by putting your full Jewish self out in the world as a model for others. Thank you for being the tallest candle in the room and bringing much-needed light to the world.