The Arc of the Moral Universe
Posted Wed, Dec 1, 2010

Like most holidays on the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah is never on time.  This year, for instance, it is “early” but even coming at the beginning of December we can still use the light.

The Chassidic masters taught: You cannot dispel darkness with a stick, you must light a candle.

It’s also been aptly noted that the benefit of the candle is twofold:  It brings light to the person who lit the candle while helping someone nearby, without diminishing its light.  A candle loses nothing even by lighting another candle.

Candles, of course, feature prominently in Jewish festive celebrations.  We welcome in Shabbat with candles every Friday night, and bid it goodbye with the braided candle of Havdallah.

But lighting the candles at Hanukkah has a special resonance, probably up there with conducting a Passover seder as the most popular holiday activity of the Jewish annual cycle.

The Talmud tells of competing schools of thought regarding the lighting of candles at Hanukkah.  One school, seeking to mirror the diminishing light of the legendary oil cruse after a week and a day, suggested starting with eight candles and removing one each day.  The other school countered that the true miracle of Hanukkah lay in adding light to the world and advocated beginning with one candle and ending with eight.

We know how this debate concluded.  We are imbued with the wonderful symbolism of the lighting of successive candles on this joyous festival and our thoughts often turn at this time to how we, in our own lives, can add light to the world.

You often hear people speak of “light at the end of the tunnel” as the optimistic metaphorical end of a long process or a difficult time they are experiencing.  Personally, at these times of uncertainty or frustration, especially when I am not sure that the light in the tunnel isn’t an oncoming train, I am buoyed by the hopeful message of the following passage:

“Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a Creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The concept of the arc of the moral universe being long but bending toward justice actually derives from the writings of Theodore Parker, a transcendentalist and Unitarian minister, who lived from 1810-1860.  But I don’t think you will be surprised to learn that the quote above is from a speech delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1967.

King loved the image of the bending arc of morality seeking justice.  In fact, he first used it in a speech in 1961, when the civil rights movement in the United States was just on the cusp of the tumultuous and, despite Dr. King’s signature approach, often violent, bloody and lethal decade that would unfold before it.  But by 1967, the movement had witnessed Selma and Montgomery; Detroit and Watts; the murders of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney and the assassination of Medgar Evers.

And not knowing that in just a matter of mere months his own name would be added to the list of those cut down for the cause, King could have rightly looked around and considered the slow, sometimes infinitesimal gains made for racial equality and wondered if there would ever in fact come a time when American society would judge people not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

And yet, in spite of the glacial pace of the civil rights movement, King remained optimistic, sustained in his effort by a firm belief that morality and justice would one day intersect and American society would finally experience the necessary transformative social change for true racial equality.

As Jews we understand this intuitively.  That we have survived and flourished over millennia of history is all the more remarkable given the litany of hate, persecution and attempted annihilation we have faced throughout time, all because of who we are.

We think about this especially at Hanukkah.  As discouraging as the manifestations of both historical and contemporary antisemitism may be, the light of the candles at this season braces and inspires us to resist oppression, fight for human rights and proudly assert our identity.

So as you load up your hanukkiyah and set flame to wick, you will of course be celebrating the stunning victory of the Maccabees for religious freedom and our right to live as Jews.

You will of course be commemorating the redemption of the temple and the astounding miracle of the burning oil.

But more than that, as you light the bright festive candles of Hanukkah, you will be illuminating the arc of the moral universe and guiding it as it bends its way toward justice.

BY:  Eric Vernon, Director of Government Relations and International Affairs, Canadian Jewish Congress

One of Canada's leading experts on antisemitism and human rights, Bernie M. Farber is the National Chief Executive Officer of Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC).

Mr. Farber has spent more than 20 years with CJC, battling hatred and racism and strengthening relationships with police services, government and other ethnic and faith communities across the country.

The recipient of countless awards, Mr. Farber is an associate member of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, and was recently selected by the Ontario government to serve as a member of the Hate Crimes Community Working Group. He also serves with the city of Vaughan Mayor's Task Force on Community Safety and Security and the York Regional Police Community Crime Prevention Advisory Council.

Mr. Farber is a published author and has contributed numerous articles on the Jewish political scene, human rights issues, the Holocaust, hate crime and white supremacy to newspapers and periodicals including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Toronto Star, and many others.


Eric Vernon was born in Toronto in 1953. He was educated at the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo and Ohio State University, in history and political science.

For over twenty years, Mr. Vernon has been the principal lobbyist in Ottawa of the Canadian Jewish Congress, the lead advocacy organization for Canada's Jewish communities and UJA Federations.

In 1987, he established the Ottawa Advocacy Office of Canadian Jewish Congress and is currently the Director of Government Relations for CJC. In these capacities he has written numerous briefs, op-eds, position papers and correspondence on national legislation, public policy, and international issues affecting Canada and its Jewish community, including antisemitism, Israel and Holocaust commemoration.

Mr. Vernon has performed a wide range of advocacy duties with federal Members of Parliament and Senators, senior public servants, government agencies, members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of other non-governmental organizations. In conjunction with these duties he has staffed several Congress committees, represented CJC at inter-faith tables, organized conferences and been involved in legislative and social policy development for CJC on a variety of domestic and international issues.