Rabbi Charley Baginsky addressed civil servants and dignitaries at a Chanukah party held at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Charley, Liberal Judaism’s director of strategy and partnerships, played a leading role in the event – which was organised by the Civil Service Jewish Network (JNet) and sponsored by the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
JNet is a cross-government network of more than 300 civil servants who are Jewish or interested in Jewish culture. It is one of the eight civil service diversity networks.
After lighting the chanukiah, Charley gave a passionate and moving speech. You can read it in full below.
Rabbi Charley Baginsky’s speech at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office:
Many Jews in the UK struggle with what to do about Christmas.
It is a non issue in our household – not just because my children have a rabbi as a mum, but because I am the rabbi that was born on Christmas Day to a mother called Mary – thankfully not in a stable and mostly I have avoided a Messiah complex!
So Christmas day is a non-issue it’s all about me. But, I have to admit that I concede a little to the children with presents over Chanukkah – they are a big deal.
But on the first night, as I gave them their first present, ‘the big one’, which will then for seven more nights become smaller and smaller – I realised that I had got it the wrong way round.
Really, they should have the smallest present first and build up slowly to the grand finale. This is indeed what we do with the candles… on the first night one and slowly we build up to a chanukiah full of light.
However, as many of you know there was once a debate as to whether this was the right way round, shouldn’t we replicate the oil decreasing and start with eight and work backwards. As Chanukkah comes when the days are short and, for many, other things are in short supply too, maybe we need some extra light on the first day to wake us up from the darkness.
Beit Shammai says, “On the first day one lights eight and from then on one continues to decrease.” Beit Hillel contends, “On the first day one lights one and from then on one continues to increase.”
The Talmud also recounts their reasoning: “The reason for Beit Shammai was according to the number of bulls offered up on Sukkot,” a number which decreases each day.
And the Hillel rationale, the one we follow today: “We increase in holiness and we don’t decrease.”
Even though we may well need the burst of a shot of light in the darkness – especially profound this year – if we envision the lighting of one candle and increasing its number each night like the big bang theory of Chanukkah it can be exceptionally powerful… a light that begins small but keeps on growing.
I hope this is a message we can hold in our minds this year. While we want the immediate gratification of the big glow, bigger and better… Just offer up the most bulls we could possibly afford and don’t sweat it approach, after all, the next day we only need to come up with one less. But really isn’t that when the trouble starts: night two, when we start taking away light, we find it’s hard to cut back.
“But, last night we lit eight candles,” the child in us might ask, “why tonight only seven?”
At the moment we feel compelled to explain our Chanukkah deficits, the bills for the Shammai plan begin to come due. Taking away the light is tough.
Instead, Chanukkah is our chance for a change to add to the light, just like the moon we structure our days and months and years by. It waxes and wanes, and Jews celebrate the new month when there is just a sliver in the sky.
We watch it grow, adding light. As we light the candles we ask too, how can we add light to the world, central to Chanukkah is the idea that a tiny bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. The way we fight is by adding light into a world that can be so dark.
We read daily about the terrible evil in our world and we sometimes feel helpless. Judaism says that you are never helpless. You can always make the world a better place by adding a little light.
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