The Light of Moral Clarity

Hanukkah candles bring us pride and joy in a time of darkness. As their light fades, another candle is needed: the havdalah candle we use at the close of shabbat. In havdalah, we praise God for separating light and dark, Israel and the nations, holy and profane (havdalah means separation). There is something comforting about this list presented as a hierarchy. At a time of war and rising antisemitism, these pairs suggest there is an order to the universe. There is dark and light, right and wrong, good and bad. Havdalah thus shines with the light of moral clarity. It orients us in the world and propels us from one shabbat to the next. But lifting our cupped hands to the candle’s flame, we see not only light and dark but a grey area between. This implies something more complex than strict binaries.

To be sure, some distinctions are clear and must be brought to light. Hamas uses mosques to store arms, schools to launch rockets, and hospitals to hide terrorists. Israel uses synagogues for prayer, schools for learning, hospitals for healing, including Gazan civilians. Hamas fires rockets indiscriminately at civilians. Israel warns civilians to flee and aims at terrorists with targeted precision. Israel is hardly free from criticism. But there is a moral chasm between these world views.

Only in a morally blind world can the deliberate slaughter of babies, the rape of women, the beheading of civilians be called “resistance” and the perpetrators “fighters.” No, it is barbarism, and they are terrorists.

But part of moral clarity is also admitting those areas of complexity. Like the shadow cast in our hands by the havdalah candle, these are areas where answers are more nuanced and where values compete. Here is an example: The phrase “from the river to the sea” must be unambiguously condemned as a call for the elimination of the Jewish state. And it is also true that many people who say it have no idea what it really means. In those cases, they must be approached individually not with condemnation but with education.

Chanukkah, which means dedication, is related to chinnukh which means education. Now as the holiday comes to an end, we must rededicate ourselves to learning and teaching about havdalah. That is, we must distinguish between light and dark, right and wrong, and understand the grey in between.

We need to differentiate legitimate criticism of Israel from antisemitism because sometimes we lump them together.

We need to distinguish supporters of Palestinian self-determination from supporters of Hamas because sometimes we view them the same.

We need to differentiate speech that is harassing from speech we find hurtful because sometimes we confuse them.

We need to distinguish social justice advocates who failed to condemn Hamas, from their just causes which we must continue to support.

We need to differentiate between the plain ignorant and the pure antisemite.

On its own, havdalah will not instill a moral compass. However, it is a weekly reminder of the need for moral clarity, the need to draw sacred distinctions and to wrestle with complexity.

May the light from Shabbat shine into the week, the light of Hanukkah into the year, the light of hope into our lives, and the light of clarity into our world.