Gifts for the Journey

This time of year, it can be more difficult to stay focused in the present. At least for me. I tend to look ahead to a new year and reflect on the one passing as if they could be held simultaneously, one in each hand, measured and weighed against one another. This morning, I can’t help but wonder if this is helpful or merely habit.

Last night I attended a Hanukkah celebration at a couple-friends’ home. Although there were a few others I knew, I hadn’t met the majority of the other guests. As the evening drew on however, the small talk yielded connections and stories began to flow. While there were moments when perspectives differed, and awkwardness caused some to give side-eye glances while others would look away, the predominant feel was light and warm. The host family’s joy and love spread through food, drink, smiles, hugs, and genuine hospitality. As light and warmth began to fill their home, I saw displays of service, kindness, and graciousness among relative strangers.

After the blessing and lighting of the menorah, people began to leave. The conversations deepened among those who remained. I learned about a woman willing to be called on time and again to pick up shifts at a residential treatment facility for people struggling with serious mental illness. I heard what it was like for a young Jewish girl from Poland to be helped by African American kids at her new school in New Jersey during a time when the white children were telling her Martin Luther King was “stirring up trouble” in the south. I felt the warmth of love having been given, saw the light of hope stirred.

This morning, as I reflect on the party, a particular moment summons my attention. A 12-year-old young man, surrounded by unfamiliar people, calls out a blessing and uses the center candle, the shamash or servant candle to light the others. This, I think, was when the evening shifted from surface conversation to shared experience.

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