Rabbinic Reflections: Private light

It is Chanukah. Since Thursday night, Jews have been lighting candles, increasing the number of candles each night. Many are also continuing the tradition of pirsumay neesa (publicizing the miracle) by lighting chanukiyot (Chanukah menorahs) in public spaces or, like me, by decorating our homes with blue and white lights and other decorations. The pandemic has changed, as it has with so many aspects of our lives, what those public experiences look like. Yes, the lights are there, but the people are far fewer, or they are in their own vehicles at drive-in ceremonies. This adjustment has forced me to focus on what it means to light the Chanukah candles at home in a way that I have not in a very long time.

Jewish law gets into fine details about the placement of a chanukiyah for publicizing the miracle: the height off the ground, the side of a doorway (opposite the mezuzah), safety, and more. The same law also takes into account that for many periods of Jewish history, the issue of safety was not about fire but rather about fear of antisemitism. Jewish law dictates that one should light at one’s table inside (away from the view of neighbors) if one is afraid. This fear is not just a bygone product of an era of Cossacks, pogroms, Nazi Germany, or much of the Middle Ages including the Inquisition. In fact, I grew up in an area of Houston, Texas where everyone on the block were good neighbors, but where not celebrating Christmas was just not right. My family lit our chanukiyot in a corner of the family room.

Lighting Chanukah candles together as a family is a wonder-filled activity. The strike of the match, singing the blessings to a special melody, the learning how to light one wick at a time, the really tricky return of the shamash (the servant candle) to its holder, and whatever songs and celebration the family can muster, all of that makes for a magic moment. Regardless of what is happening outside — bad or good, fear or freedom, pandemic or peace — the glow of light from the candles and from even the face of just one person lighting on their own is a rare pause of appreciation.

Fire occasions awe. I had a house fire. I know of what I write. Even more simply though, fire — with its light and its heat, its need for oxygen and for fuel, and its help and its potential harm — reminds us of that which is not totally in our control. Like the one sealed cruse of ritually pure oil that the Maccabees found in the Temple when they rededicated it, there is a bit of miracle in each light we kindle. The Maccabees cruse had enough oil for only one day, and yet the oil lasted long enough to produce more, a total of eight days. When we light a candle, we see it burn, usually safely, and we interact with our world a little bit more carefully, more intentionally; that is the virtue of a candlelit dinner, too. Our minds focus less on our busy lives, less on what we control, and instead pause. In that moment, we see who we are and what we have.

Perhaps most significantly, we take time to light this way at the darkest time of year. Yes, like many faiths and humans of no particular faith, December and the winter solstice are universally times to “light up the darkness.” That darkness, though, is a reminder of our lack of control of the biggest aspects of nature, like the length of daylight hours. The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that Adam, the first human, saw the days getting shorter and blamed himself for what he saw as the impending end of the world. He celebrated the lengthening of daylight after the solstice by lighting lights. When we take a moment in a time of existential weakness to linger with awe by lighting even a single flame, we give space to accept our limitations as natural and, in doing so, to rededicate ourselves to seeing our own worth. Our private lighting is our private light. May it shine bright this year and for many years to come. Happy Chanukah.

About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hillel Network, responsible for West Chester University, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and other area colleges. He is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington and was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.



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