It is likely that the symbol that most people would identify with the Jewish community and Judaism from ancient times would be the six-pointed star or hexagram, widely known as the Star of David.
Actually, the oldest symbol of Judaism and the Jewish community is the 7-branched candelabra, called in Hebrew menorah.
The biblical book of Exodus records the command to fashion a "lampstand of pure gold," with seven branches. Each branch of the menorah featured on top ornamentation in the shape of almond blossoms. This was significant because the almond tree blooms early (in January) in the land of Israel, so early that it was viewed as having an eternal quality. It was a short "leap" to link the almond tree to the Tree of Life (in the story of the Garden of Eden).
A symbol bearing light, which can light up the darkness at any time of year, was created in the shape of a tree that represented the endurance of life itself.
At this writing, lights are still up around town (and in many, many more places) as the celebration of Christmas continues to its conclusion, following the kindling of lights during Advent leading up to the holiday. Many find these lights, in whatever form, captivating.
The lighting of a new candle on a kinara each night from December 26 to January 1 to observe Kwanzaa highlights values based in African traditions that reflect both particular and universal messages. The glow of these candles offers inspiration to strengthen personal character and a sense of communal responsibility.
When most people hear the word menorah, they think of the candelabra that Jews light on Chanukah, an eight-day holiday that celebrates a victory for religious freedom by Jews of Judea against their Syrian Greek rulers. Led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers, the Jews reconsecrated and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem as a place of Jewish worship. They celebrated their victory for eight days, lighting the Temple menorah which had not been lit for three years.
The story of a container of oil being found that was expected to last for one day, but burned for eight days, added a touch of drama and sanctity to the holiday. In Jewish tradition, Chanukah is not a major holy day, but the light on the 9 branched Chanukah menorah, also known as a Chanukiah, is considered to be holy. With each additional night, the glow of the candles increases in intensity. There is beauty, wonder, spirit, history, determination, strength and hope contained in those lights.
Perhaps similar values are brought to mind for many people as they behold the lights that are a part of their own traditions and cultures at this and other times of the year.
Recently, at Temple Beth-El, we dedicated new front doors which bear a stylized menorah.
At the recent ceremony to consecrate these new doors, I offered this interpretation: "During the day, these doors allow light to come in and to sense when someone has a desire to enter our space to join us. At night, we can see the light from within shine forth into the night.
As these doors allow light in, may we be open to the lights of learning, freedom, friendship, love, and hope so that they can suffuse our spirits. As these doors reveal the light within to the darkness of the outside world, may we share our lights with our community, the lights of wisdom, wonder, creativity, commitment, kindness, and peace."
There is light inside of each of us that we can share. There is light outside of us that, if we welcome it, can lead us to personal growth and new understanding, and bring us closer to one another. Our combined light can, if we will it, illumine any darkness we may encounter.