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    Be the Shamash

    By Rabbi Mychal Copeland–

    The hanukkiah, the special menorah for the Hanukkah holiday, displays eight candles of equal height, one for each night of the celebration. But the ninth candle, the “shamash,” stands a bit higher and is used as a helper to light each of the eight. This candle doesn’t get its own night of the holiday—yet without it, we would have no light at all. 

    Hopefully at some point in your life, you have been lifted up by someone who acted as a shamash for you, and you have likely had the opportunity to be the shamash for someone else, whether you realize it or not. 

    This season, how can each of us be a shamash? The month of December brings joy to many, while it is the most difficult time of year for others: those who are lonely, exacerbated by the isolation of the pandemic; those feeling the effects of discrimination against LGBTQI people, racism, and antisemitism; those who face mental health challenges; those who are in recovery from addiction; those who have suffered the loss of loved ones; those who have been displaced or evicted; those feeling despair about our world.

    Take a moment, right now, to think of someone in your community, in our Bay Area LGBTQI community, who could be having a rough season. You might ask yourself:

    What is a strength of mine that I can offer them, or something I can offer my community?

    What is one thing I can do to include them?

    What is an issue facing our community (like one of those aforementioned) where I could get involved?

    What is one thing I can do to make someone feel celebrated?

    Call them. Text them. Email them. Visit them. Listen.

    A Jewish sage, the Sfat Emet, reinterpreted the Hanukkah candles as the light by which we search out our inner selves. Perhaps the internal work of this holiday is to see ourselves as a shamash, to recognize that our own spiritual development is deepened when we are in profound connection with another human being. Whether or not you observe any particular holiday this season, perhaps the symbol of the hanukkiah can serve as an inspiration and reminder to be a shamash to someone in your life.

    For more great resources about Judaism and mental health, check out

    Rabbi Mychal Copeland is the spiritual leader of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, the Bay Area’s progressive synagogue rooted in the LGBTQI community.

    Published on December 15, 2022