Ah, a magical season begins. Joy blooms in the marly soil of the heart, even when the face of the earth is bedded in frost. Lights twinkle in adoring eyes whose gaze pierces the blanket of looming night. Weary combatants of the battlefield and the home front lay aside their foils and their barbs and huddle close in grateful peace. Avast, avaunt, yon anomie; aboard, ye bonhomie!
Jews and Christians may debate the provenance of the season’s power, but the Bard speaks for both:
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm;
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.
In so charmed an instant, we are all prophets who see with pristine clarity the world of Isaiah (35:6): “Then the lame will gambol like a gazelle and the tongue of the mute will croon, for water has sprouted in the desert and streams on the barren plain.” Suddenly, we are jarred back to reality by the thought that millions of Arabs have lately conceived a hatred for us that has moved them to stalk us implacably; with fairly feeble weapons, it’s true, but with rabid passion.
This seems like a time to take heart from a little-known prophecy that is tucked cleverly away in the earliest pages of Scripture, accessible only to those proficient in Hebrew. And if I may venture a creative interpretation of my own, we might even discover an avenue of policy worth traversing.
As we know, the father of the Arabs was Ishmael, son of Abraham. When Abraham prophesied (Genesis 17:18) that Isaac would be born, he answered humbly, “It’s enough that Ishmael live…” The answer came back (verse 20): “As for Ishmael, I have heard you… and I will multiply him very very much, twelve princes he will bear…”
The Hebrew word used here for princes is nesi’im, which also means “clouds,” as in Proverbs (25:14). So on the phrase “twelve princes”, we find this brief comment by Rashi (1035-1105): “Like clouds they will dissipate.” Folks who know Hebrew, this is their own little secret. A promise that ultimately the Arab ascendancy will not require a world war to take down like the German hegemony did, that it will dwindle away over the course of time.
But here is my personal twist. I always get the vibe that the clouds are the key. That somehow we will harness some energy source in water or hydrogen or oxygen to render oil obsolete as a fuel. This will immediately reduce the Arab nations from world beaters into Third World countries. The tin-pot dictators will be reduced to the tin cup of the beggar; that should mend their cant. They will no longer have us over a … er, barrel. (Remember Isaiah’s water sprouting in the desert.)
Even those less inclined to look to Scripture for insight should embrace the approach of intensifying our research into alternate fuel sources. Author Paul Douglas is on the right track when he speaks of a Manhattan Project to develop a source of energy that is not based on petroleum. President Bush embraced this rhetorically during his State of the Union address; since then, we have watched the price of oil rise drastically. The time for action is at hand.
Although we seek to retire petroleum from powering our machinery, to let it rest under the deserts and the oceans, we still appreciate the notion of oil as fuel. Many different plant and vegetable substances were designed to offer the option of being ground or pressed into oil. This oil can be ignited to burn as a flame. These flames are not noted for providing much heat, but they are wonderful conveyors of light.
Candlelight is at the heart of the seasonal observances. This wonderful illumination has a gentle touch, bathing us in a homey light. So many romances, so much poetry, so many appealing fancies, so many ennobling dreams, have been fostered in the tender glow of the candle. Somehow the cold harsh world of winter melts away when the feisty candle reaches its circle of light into boxy rooms.
One last thought. Here is a small quote from the Talmud (Shabbat 23a), presented as a legal statement, but apparently something a great deal more profound: “The scholar Rabba used to think that sesame oil is preferable for Chanukah candles, because it burns longer, until he was taught that olive oil is preferable, because it gives off a clearer light.”
We live in paradoxical times. Amazing technological advances enhance our lives and increase our potential for achievement, on one hand. Horrific terrorist ideologies are metastasizing into moral cancers which endanger our lives and shrink their range, on the other. Our prayer in this season: clarity above all.