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Blessed Is The Flame: Shabbat Message from Cantorial Soloist Michelle Auslander Cohen

“Light one candle for the Maccabee children, with thanks that their light didn’t die.

Light one candle for the pain they endured, when their right to exist was denied…”

We are all Maccabee children. We are all learning how to fight to keep our light burning during these very dark times. When Peter, Paul and Mary wrote this song in 1982 in response to the Lebanon war, I wonder if they imagined how relevant its words would still be today, forty-two years later.

“Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice, Justice and freedom demand…”

Just reading these words makes my heart hurt.

Justice is demanding the terrible sacrifice of the lives of the brave men and women fighting on the front lines in Gaza.

Justice is demanding the terrible sacrifice of the families of IDF soldiers.

Justice is demanding the terrible sacrifice of everyone working to bring the hostages home.

“Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years.

Don’t let the light go out, let it shine through our hope and our tears.”

But how do we keep our individual and collective lights burning while justice and freedom are demanding such difficult work from all of us? This is the age-old question that we face each time an enemy rises up against us. How do we allow ourselves to feel joyful for the privileges we enjoy, knowing our children are still in captivity and others are sacrificing their lives for our freedom?

As part of the Birkot HaShachar, our morning blessings, we are taught to recite:

“Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech haolam, she-lo asahni a-veid.”

Blessed are You, Adonai, our Gd, Majesty of the world, who has not made me a slave”.

Israeli singer/songwriter, Aharon Razel explains in one of his songs, “Gd makes us not be a slave, but it is Torah (and our inner work) that makes us be a free person.”

So often we imprison ourselves. We become slaves to our thoughts, to our emotions and to our circumstances. And sometimes, being a slave to circumstance is easier than embarking on the incredible work it takes to keep our light and our faith alive through the darkest of times. Yet through this gentle reminder in Birkot HaShachar, we can become one step closer to our light on the path towards spiritual freedom.

Brené Brown, professor, author and researcher known for her work on shame, vulnerability, and leadership, further helps us understand how to free ourselves from being a slave to circumstance. She explains in her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection,” the difference between joy and happiness; “Joy seems a step beyond happiness. Happiness is a sort of atmosphere you can live in sometimes when you’re lucky. Joy is a light that fills you, from within, with hope and faith and love. Joyfulness is tied to spirit and gratitude… It is a practice of self-love.”

In order to keep that divine spark of joy alive – the flame from within that is B’tzelem Elohim – (in Gd’s image) – it is essential to practice self-love. Our light cannot keep itself going; it needs attention, it needs care, it needs understanding and most of all it needs us to recognize that the foundation of our inner light begins with self-love.  Only then will our light not be a slave to circumstance, but its very existence will be fueled from the love we give ourselves.

In our Torah portion this week, Mikeitz, we have a wonderful example of someone who never let his light go out. Think about what Joseph went through in his life; the people who were supposed to love him the most threw him in a pit because of hate and jealousy. From then on, he is completely powerless to the circumstances he finds himself in. And yet, we never hear of Joseph giving up. His light does not diminish – his happiness may have diminished because of circumstances but his authenticity remains present throughout his story.

How do we know this? Because after being abandoned by his siblings and sold to be a slave, when asked to show his true colors of being a dream interpreter in the depths of an Egyptian prison, he simply does what he has always done; he shares his gifts. He goes from being a prisoner to being second-in command of the Egyptian empire, accountable to no one but Pharaoh himself. And yet there is never a moment in Joseph’s story in which he does not rise to the occasion and realize his potential.  His emunah, his deep faith, nurtured his self-love and his light shown regardless of his circumstances.

How do we not let our light go out?

We recognize that as hard as it may be, we, the Jewish people, are not and never will be slaves to circumstance. We are descendants of Joseph – a man who had every reason to give up, yet his faith never wavered.  We are a people that have gone through the worst horrors humankind has ever experienced and not only survived, but thrived.

We may be living in dark times, but we are not defined by them.  We are a people who see our neighbor’s child as our own, and who will move mountains if it means we can save just one life.

Am Yisrael has and always will be defined by what we value most: family, education, culture, Torah, love and life itself. These values are what will fuel the flames of the divine within each of us through our darkest time and this is how we will keep our flames shining strong now and forever.

“This is the burden, and this is the promise, and this is why we will not fail!”

Am Yisrael Chai.

Shabbat Shalom,

Michelle Auslander Cohen
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