COMMENTARY: I have found myself thinking in recent days about how we deal with diversity in the United States, and, specifically, in our own city and community. Our differences are real. What is also real is our basic and intrinsic similarity as members of the human family.
Unfortunately, differences may unnecessarily lead to divisions that drive us apart. Differences, however, can also offer opportunities to learn about philosophies, ideologies and beliefs that we may not share so that we can better know and understand our neighbors.
Temple Beth-El recently hosted “Ever Grateful – An Interfaith Conversation,” which featured a panel that included Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Baha’i participants and an audience that broadened the range of faith groups represented that day. We heard about prayers, stories, and perspectives that illustrated a tapestry of religious approaches that were connected by common threads of thankfulness for the gifts of life and community.
This event took place nine days after the attacks in Paris. One question that was submitted wondered if all of us believe that our faiths can lead us to cooperatively improve the world. We all responded with a resounding “yes!”
The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is being celebrated this year beginning on the night of Dec. 6 and continuing through sunset on Dec. 14. Hanukkah commemorates a victory for religious freedom by Jews in Judea in 165 B.C. against their Syrian-Greek rulers, who had demanded everyone in their empire to follow Greek culture and beliefs. The Temple in Jerusalem, which had been turned in a place of exclusive tribute to the Greek pantheon of gods, was recaptured by Jewish fighters and rededicated as a Jewish house of worship.
Some Jews who had adopted Greek practices prior to the takeover of the Temple realized that there was greater value in their own faith. They willingly joined in this struggle for the right to be different.
Every Hanukkah menorah, with its eight branches for the eight nights of the holiday, plus the branch for the shamash/”helper” candle, is lit with one new candle each night, until we see the brilliance of nine lights on the last night of the festival. Most boxes of Hanukkah candles provide a rainbow of colors (for which there is no religious significance). Placing candles in a menorah (specifically called a Hanukkiah, by the way) is, therefore, always an exercise in creativity and diversity.
The Hanukkiah/Menorah reminds me of who we are as a nation and as a world community. When the multi-colored eight-candles-plus-one are kindled on the last night of Hanukkah, it is an amazing sight, one that elicits wonder as the flames dance, seemingly in a coordinated movement.
These lights are a source of warmth, holiness and joy. They call to mind our passion for what we believe, even as we acknowledge the devotion of our neighbors to their perspectives, with the possibility that we will discover ways in which we can work toward common goals.
On Hanukkah, lights coexist in harmony. In the same way that they stand side-by-side, we can all be like the candles on a menorah, offering warmth and the promise of unity and respect towards one another. For our well-being as a human family, that continues to be my hope.
Rabbi Larry Karol has served as spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Las Cruces since July 2011. He and his wife Rhonda moved here after five years in Dover, N.H. and 22 years in Topeka, Kansas. Karol has been involved with interfaith and multicultural programming throughout his rabbinate.