The American Israelite
Being the only one from my immediate circle of family and friends that live in Cincinnati, I get forwarded any article that mentions interesting facts about our city. This occurred again over Chanukah, when I was forwarded an interesting article that described the history of gas street lights. Before electricity became sufficiently widespread and economical to allow for general public use, gas was the most popular method of outdoor and indoor lighting in cities and suburbs. Having light on the street prevented much crime and many other accidents that were taking place on the dark streets, especially during the winter.
What does this have to do with Cincinnati? While gas street lights are almost extinct today in the United States, the article did mention the following interesting fact: “In Boston., there are more than 2,800 gas lights in several historic districts of the city. In Cincinnati, Ohio, more than 1,100 gas lights operate in areas that have been named historic districts.”
How were these street lights lit? Historically, the city would hire official lamplighters whose job would be to go around at night and — using a long pole as a torch — would light the street lamps. A small team of lamplighters still operate in London, England where gas lights have been installed by English Heritage. In the European Union, there are only two cities where lamplighters are still on duty, Zagreb in Croatia and Wroclaw in Poland.
Besides the historical information, I found this article to be very inspiring. It reminded me of a story that I heard as a child that defined the role of the inspired Jew. There was once a Chassidic Jew that asked his rabbi to define, in layman’s terms, the role of an inspired Chassid. His rabbi replied: “A chassid is a lamplighter. The lamplighter walks the streets carrying a flame at the end of a pole. He knows that the flame is not his. And he goes from lamp to lamp to set them alight.”
The rabbi was imparting a very important lesson: Each Jew is compared to a lamp that is waiting to be lit up and inspired to be connected to Hashem. While each Jew has a soul, which is always burning with a desire to cleave to Hashem, it is not always felt by the person. Those that have been blessed with the gift of knowledge of Hashem, should work — even at the cost of great personal sacrifice and discomfort, to light the lamps of the Jews around them.
The chassid was not finished with his questioning: “But rabbi, I do not see the lamps!” he exclaimed. In his mind, he was thinking of the many Jewish acquaintances that he knew that seemed very distant, and even antagonistic, to matters of faith, religion and tradition. He felt that it would be impossible to light those “lamps”.
The rabbi looked at this Chassid, and sharply replied: ““That is because you are not a lamplighter.”
“How does one become a lamplighter?”
“First, you must reject the evil within yourself. Start with yourself: cleanse yourself, refine yourself, and you will see the lamp within your fellow. When a person is himself coarse, G-d forbid, he sees coarseness; when a person is himself refined, he sees the refinement in others.”
Living in a city that prides itself with retaining the historic gas street-lights, should remind — and inspire — us of our special mission to be the lamplighter for those around us. Every one of us has something to share and inspire others, as the saying goes “if you know Aleph, teach Aleph”; we just need to be ready to go out of our comfort zone and “brave the elements” to bring light to the world. In most cases we don’t need to travel far geographically, as we all know people in our immediate circle who can benefit from what we can offer, but we must be ready to take the first step out of our comfort zone and reach out to our family member, friend or neighbor and light their flame.
This step may seem small, but to quote one of the most famous people from our great state, Mr. Neil Armstrong who was born and raised in Wapakoneta, Ohio, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”