The world can seem a menacing place, Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan says, one in which evil prevails as often as not. But just as a single, small light can be seen from afar, he says, a humble act of good will can dispel the darkness.
Kaplan will help light what organizers say is Maryland's tallest menorah in the Inner Harbor on Sunday night, marking the start of Hanukkah in the Jewish Year 5776 and the sixth Baltimore Hanukkah Festival.
Hundreds are expected at McKeldin Square to see a fireworks display, a parade of menorah-topped cars and the ceremonial kindling of a 32-foot steel menorah, the nine-stemmed candelabrum central to the Jewish celebration of the eight-day holiday.
Hanukkah, a remembrance of the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem almost 2,200 years ago, begins at sundown Sunday and continues through Dec. 14.
And as they've done every year since 2010, the Chabad Lubavitch Centers of Greater Baltimore is teaming with the Baltimore mayor's office to sponsor an event that has drawn nearly 300 people each year to celebrate the occasion.
Families can arrive as early as 4 p.m. to hear traditional Jewish music and take part in Hanukkah activities, said Kaplan, director of the Chabad Center and Lubavitch of Maryland and an organizer of the event.
The official ceremony commences at 5 p.m., when rabbis and dignitaries are scheduled to speak.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Larry Hogan (at the time governor-elect) have addressed the gathering in past years.
Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, Young and others are expected to do the same Sunday.
Jews light the menorah each night of Hanukkah to commemorate the miracle of the oil.
Around 160 B.C., a ruling body in Jerusalem dominated by Syrian Greeks banned the practice of Judaism and took over the Temple.
An outnumbered cadre of Jewish rebels, the Maccabees, eventually ousted their oppressors, and reclaimed and rededicated the temple.
When they went to light ceremonial lamps for the occasion, according to rabbinical literature, the rebels found just a day's worth of oil. But the lights blazed for eight days and nights.
At one level, Kaplan said, the miracle underscores the importance of religious freedom and the need for Jews to remain vigilant about protecting it.
That's one reason Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, is a good time for Jews and other Americans to express their thanks for the religious freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, Kaplan said.
At another level, he said, the candles reflect the power of goodwill in all its forms — from offering a smile to volunteering for a major cause — to chase away what can seem like all-powerful darkness.
The Baltimore festival got its start in 2010 when Harold Brown, a local real estate developer, had the oversized menorah built to honor his daughter, Esther Ann Brown Adler, who died earlier that year. Festival organizers placed it in McKeldin Square.
Several traditions, including the car parade, have evolved in the time since. As many as 100 drivers fix menorahs to the roofs of their vehicles and enjoy a police escort from Northwest Baltimore down the Jones Falls Expressway to the Inner Harbor, their "candles" glowing the whole way.
This year's event will feature a fireworks display for the first time, Kaplan said, and Yoel Sharabi, a New York-based musical artist, is to perform Israeli and traditional Hasidic tunes.
To Kaplan, it's all part of the larger meaning of Hanukkah.
"We may see a lot of ugliness and cruelty in the world, but it should never cower or intimidate us," he said. "We don't have the power to change night to day, but a little light can dispel a lot of darkness. We can create points of light everywhere."