Monday, December 7, 2015

Why Jews Publicize the Miracle of Chanukah

Kislev 25 (this year, it falls on the sunset of December, 6 on the Gregorian calendar) marks the beginning of Chanukah, which is the Jewish Festival of Lights. The primary mitzvah for this holiday is to light the menorah. The aspect of lighting the menorah that I would like to focus on this year is where one is supposed to light the menorah. According to the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), the Chanukah candle is supposed to be placed at the door of the house. If one lives on an upper floor of a building, it is to be placed by a window. The only exception to this rule is if one lives in dangerous times where such an act would endanger one's life (also see Mishneh Torah, Megillah v'Channukah, Ch. 4). The Talmudic sages (חז״ל) go out of their way to make the point that the mitzvah should be public. We aren't commanded to publicize the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles, so why are we given the rabbinic commandment to publicize the lighting of Chanukah candles?

One answer is that it is not enough for the Jew to be Jewish "in private only." The word for "[Jewish] education" is חינוך, which happens to have the same three-letter root as the word Chanukah. It is not enough to keep the light of Torah inside one's home. A Jew is meant to have Jewish values permeate in all facets of life, and thusly bring that light outside of the private domain and into the public domain. That idea leads to another thought.

The Talmud later states in Shabbat 22b that the purpose for the menorah is that it is a testimony to mankind that the Divine Presence rests upon the people Israel. Since the only facet of the Temple service that embodies this testimony is the menorah, it is supposed to represent the role of the Jewish people in the Divine scheme of creation. The whole notion of being a "chosen people" can make some anxious, annoyed, or miffed, but as I have explored before, the whole idea of the Jews being a chosen people is in terms of spiritual vocation. Jews weren't chosen because they're better, but because G-d wanted the Jewish people to take on more responsibilities. That is why there are certain commandments (mitzvot) that are incumbent upon the Jewish people, but from which non-Jews are exempt. According to Jewish theology, these additional responsibilities help create a unique spiritual role for the Jew to positively influence the world in its own way (e.g., playing a pivotal role into the modern system of ethics). As the Jewish aphorism goes, Schwer zu zein ein Yid. "It's tough to be a Jew." Isaiah 42:6 refers to the Jewish people as or l'goyim (אור לגויים), a light unto nations, and that idea could not be more appropriate than during a Festival of Lights.

Chanukah typically falls in December, which from an astronomical standpoint, is the darkest period of the year for those in the Northern Hemisphere (and yes, that includes Israel). We use this period of pronounced physical darkness to remind us of the spiritual darkness in this world. As Einstein once said, "Darkness is the absence of light." Even just a little bit of light removes us from abject darkness.

In Judaism, ritual serves as an action-based meditation. While Judaism has a universalistic set of morals and values, it also comes with particularistic rituals. Without these rituals, there would be no discernible distinction between the Jew and the non-Jew. Bringing it back to the theme of darkness, we all have our moments of darkness. We need to bring light into our own lives. Interesting how Jewish tradition historically emphasizes the holiness of light, as opposed to the destructiveness of fire. However, the Jew is not supposed to create that light just for the individual self, the household, or even just the Jewish people. It is meant to be shared with everyone within the sphere of influence to both literally and metaphorically bask in the light. A vital part of the aforementioned Jewish spiritual vocation is to help others, regardless of whether they are Jewish or not, and make their lives brighter than they were beforehand. Even though there is plenty of darkness, cruelty, and evil in the world, the publicizing of the menorah reminds us there is hope because the Maccabees were able to overcome oppression and experience the power rededication, so can we. It reminds us that even a little bit of light can take the edge off the darkness. May we experience usher in an era where such darkness doesn't exist, and we can know the true meaning of peace!

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