Hanukkah gives us a chance to explore the question of visibility. We are called to display the miracle, as Jews all over the world place chanukiot in our windows for eight nights. In these times of elevated vulnerability, with increased attention given to white supremacist ideas, and in the aftermath of the deep loss in Pittsburgh, we may feel an instinct to shrink ourselves and hide.
“Our Sages taught: The Hanukkah candle - it is a mitzvah to place it at the door of one's house, on the outside, and if one is living in an attic, place it in a window facing the public area. And in times of danger, one may place it on his table, and that is sufficient to fulfill his obligation.” (Talmud Shabbat 21b:8)
What might it mean to decide to place your chaunukiah away from your window? If you light your chanukiah away from your window, and no one else is around to see it, does it truly fulfill the mitzvah? Is displaying the miracle really so important?
The Mishnah says, “A spark that escapes from under a hammer and causes damage, [the one who caused the spark] is liable. A camel that was loaded with flax and was passing through the public domain and the flax entered into a store and was lit by a candle of the store owner and lit the building on fire, the owner of the camel is liable. The store owner who places his candle outside of his shop is liable. Rabbi Yehudah said: ‘In regards to a Hanukkah candle he is exempt.’" (Bava Kamma 62b:1-2) According to Rabbi Yehudah, the Hanukkah candle is so important to display that in matters of liability for damage from that candle, one is exempt.
What sets Hanukkah apart is our ability, as Jews, to be extra malleable in our practice of the holiday. There are very few commandments associated with Hanukkah. We must light and we must be visible. What else must we do? That is up to us. However, we can draw inspiration from the story of Hanukkah itself to decide.
Rabbi Laura Geller said, “The miracle wasn't that the oil lasted an additional seven days, but rather that those ancestors lit the first wick at all, without being certain that the light would last long enough to complete the rededication of the Temple. The miracle was that they took the chance, a risk, a leap of faith. They took the first step even though they were not sure they had enough resources to succeed. What is the real miracle of Chanukah? It is the miracle of human courage that empowers us to take risks for the future even in our imperfect, uncertain world. It is the courage, even in the darkest of times, to create our own light.”
Hanukkah is an opportunity to be courageous. When in times of great fear we choose to act, to speak out against water shutoffs, to display our Jewishness visibly and unapologetically, the impact of that act is heightened. When we take this time to celebrate and advocate for ourselves and our broader community, we have the chance to really spread light in dark times. One of the many great arguments between the sages Hillel and Shammai is whether to decrease the number of candles lit each day of Hanukkah or to increase the number. Today, we light one more candle each day, for “in matters of holiness, we ascend and do not descend.” (Talmud Shabbat 21b)
This Hanukkah, may our light only ascend and may we be overcome with the bravery to act.
Lauren Fine is a DJJ intern for the year through the Jewish Communal Leadership Program at University of Michigan's School of Social Work. Before moving to Michigan from North Carolina in August, Lauren worked in student engagement at North Carolina Hillel and co-chaired her local Carolina Jews for Justice chapter. Lauren is also a Repair the World (Baltimore) alum and has her BS in Communication Studies from Appalachian State University.
Check out Lauren's blog now in the Detroit Jewish News!