a lit menorah in a window

How will we bring a little extra light into the world this Hanukkah?

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Genesis 41:1-44:17

Zecharia 2:14-4:7

When he was quite young, my son and I were driving through our neighborhood during this time of winter holidays when he remarked, “Now I know who is Jewish and who is Christian — everyone with Christmas lights hanging on their houses are Christian, and those without lights are Jewish.” This determination made perfect sense to my son’s five or six-year-old self, and he was clearly satisfied to have so neatly ordered his world. What he couldn’t fathom at that age was that one’s religious observance and faith is so much more complex than bright, flickering lights on the front porch. And yet, my young son was on to something.

I write these words in the shadows of the heinous anti-Semitic act of terror in a kosher market in Jersey City. Six people were murdered. Just days later, the Torah scrolls at the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills were vandalized and desecrated. Anti-Semitic violence has increased against the most publicly visible Jews in Orthodox neighborhoods from New York to Paris. Moreover, in the most recent survey of American Jews by the American Jewish Committee, 25 percent fear for their safety because they are Jews. Almost one third of respondents avoid “publicly wearing, carrying, or displaying things that might help people identity them as Jewish.”

In the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b, the rabbis address the question of where to place the Hanukkah lamp (menorah, or chanukiyah). We learn, “It is a mitzvah to place the Hanukkah lamp at the entrance to one’s house on the outside, so that all can see it. If one lived upstairs, the chanukiyah should be placed by an adjacent window to the outside, for the public to see.” The Talmud even offers a provision for times of danger when lighting Hanukkah candles was forbidden — in this case, one places the candles on the table, and this is sufficient to fulfill one’s obligation.

The Talmud reinforces the very purpose of lighting the Hanukkah candles: It is not to remember the miracle, but rather, to publicize the miracle through the display of the lights. Placing the Hanukkah candles at the front entrance to one’s home, or even on view through the front window, is central to the essence and meaning of Hanukkah. Even more than the sufganiyot (jelly donuts), the songs, the latkes and the dreidels, lighting the candles in view of the public is truly the central mitzvah and purpose of this festival.

Many of us remember the incident from 1993 when a Billings, Montana, home was vandalized during Hanukkah after the Schnitzer family hung their son’s drawing of a menorah, dreidel and a Star of David in his bedroom window. When local leaders read in the newspaper that Schnitzer family was advised by police to remove the Jewish symbols from their window, they created and passed out paper menorahs through Church gatherings and in the local newspaper. Soon, thousands of Billings homes proudly displayed Hanukkah menorahs. The journalist who first published the full-page color image of the menorah explains, “it was a gesture when a gesture mattered.” The town came together to unite and fight against racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, and became widely known through the “Not in Our Town” film made about their journey.

The question we ask today, then, during these last days of Hanukkah is, what is our gesture? What is the act, the word, the deed that we can perform that can make a difference and bring some light, some healing to the darkness and fear that threatens our souls. Because today, we are in desperate need of gestures — gestures that dispel fear, gestures that support truth and sincerity, gestures that acknowledge and support the most vulnerable among all people.

Perhaps the lights we light and those that hang from front porches, and those draping trees across our land during this time of year can serve as a gesture pointing us all toward hope and redemption. For as we read in this week’s Haftarah in the Zecharia 4:6, “This is the word of God…Not by might nor by power, but by My spirit.”

Rabbi Stacy Friedman
Rabbi Stacy Friedman

Rabbi Stacy Friedman is the senior rabbi of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. She and her husband Frank are the proud parents of two teenage sons.