The Shamash, The Helper

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‘Twas the day after Christmas, and all through the world
All the presents were opened, all the wonders unfurled;
The hugs were all given to those loved so dear,
In hopes that this light and this warmth lasts all year.

As many as two billion people around the world celebrated the Christmas holiday yesterday. Here in the Midwest, it was a beautifully sunny, snow-covered day, reminiscent of childhood holiday seasons. It stirred up the nostalgia in my Christian-raised husband, as he fired up Netflix, searching for “White Christmas”, while I washed out the hot cocoa mugs our family sipped from that evening.

It had already been over a week since my menorah was cleaned of melted wax and placed back in the china cabinet, and the air was cleared of the smell of latkes sizzling in hot oil.

“So, is Chanukah like Jewish Christmas?” asked my dental hygienist a few weeks ago as she scraped and prodded, while I could do nothing more than respond with garbled grunts. Finally sitting upright and all instruments of dental torture out of my mouth, I shared the Reader’s Digest version of the holiday’s history…

Over 2,000 years ago, King Antiochus ruled over the land of Judea, and decided that he wanted all of his subjects to worship Greek gods. The Jews were not down with this plan, as they were a monotheistic people who prayed to one God.  One of those Jews, Judah Maccabee, possibly a Jedi, gathered his fellow resistance fighters, and fought back against Antiochus’s army, pushing them right out of Jerusalem. The Jewish people went right to work cleaning and spiffing up the Temple, restoring it to its original state. They decided to light an oil lamp, but seeing there was only enough oil to last one day, they expected their light to burn briefly…however, the oil continued to burn for eight days! Chanukah, “The Festival of Lights”, is now celebrated to recall this miracle and success over those who wished to oppress them.*
*So, no, Chanukah is not Jewish Christmas.

One of the enduring symbols of Chanukah is the menorah, the nine-branched candelabra which is used to recreate the burning of the oil in the Temple. Chanukah lasts eight days. Each night, a new candle is lit on the menorah, until the 8th night, when the entire thing is ablaze. But, WAIT!!…say my mathematically-minded readers. There are eight nights, but nine branches. That does not add up! Ah, there is, however, a ninth candle, which takes a humble, yet significant role in lighting up the menorah each night.

The Shamash, the ninth candle, is Hebrew for “servant” or “attendant”. It is also informally known as the “helper candle”. On a traditional menorah, the shamash is usually in the middle of the menorah, either taller or shorter than, or set off to the side of, the other 8 branches. The job of the shamash is to kindle the light of the other candles, which then provide a full menorah’s worth of light. The menorah’s light is not meant to serve us, to read or do work by, but to illuminate the darkness, to chase the shadows away.

There is a beautiful sentiment to consider in that the menorah’s light is not created selfishly for us, just as the world was not created for any single one of us. The Earth does not belong to us. We are here to be stewards of this place we call home, maintaining it for everyone else we share it with and for those who have yet to exist. Just as we are caretakers of the Earth, the shamash attends to the lighting of each Chanukah candle. If a candle accidentally flames out, the shamash takes up the task to light it again. One unglorified, plain candle has the ability to bring light to the darkness.

This Chanukah season, after a year of heightened anti-Semitism in the United States, lighting the candles left me pondering the metaphor of the shamash as the candles burned each night in my home.

How can we be a shamash in our teaching lives? How can we kindle the light in others?

With our coworkers, we can be patient, supportive, collaborative, reflective.

With our school’s families, we can be kind, helpful, thoughtful, communicative.

And most importantly, with our students we
Smile
Give them a pencil when they need one
Offer hugs, fist bumps, and high fives
Share a snack when they don’t have one
Talk about their lives and the ever-changing world around them
Show them how to be a good friend
Listen to their stories
Validate their stories
Teach them how to amplify their stories
Introduce them to diverse, life-changing books
Make time for them to read those books
Allow them to wonder, explore, be curious
Tell them they are important and unique
Let them teach
Learn from them

We find it is in the simple acts, the quiet moments, the ordinary interactions that we have the opportunity to be a shamash, a helper, with our children. As teachers, we serve our students best by raising them to be stewards of not only this Earth, but of the people who populate it. When we light that fire in our students, they learn how to become a shamash of their own someday, attending to others for the greater good. It is never too late to kindle a flame, or to rekindle a flame that has extinguished. Once ignited, it may last a day, or eight. Or a lifetime.

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