Shining Light in The Darkness

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, November 30, 2023

The Sages taught in a baraita: 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 he lived upstairs, he places it at the window adjacent to the public domain. And in a time of danger, he places it on the table and that is sufficient to fulfill his obligation. Rava said: One must kindle another light in addition to the Hanukkah lights in order to use its light, as it is prohibited to use the light of the Hanukkah lights.
— Talmud Shabbat 21b (translation Koren-Steinsaltz edition courtesy of Sefaria)

Here, in one of the few teachings specifically about the Hannukiah (the Hanukkah Menorah), the rabbis explain that not only is it a mitzvah to kindle the lights, but we are also obligated to do so publicly. This is one of the most essential elements of the Hannukiah lighting each night, called pirsum ha-nes, the lights cannot be used for other tasks, the Hanukkah lights are kindled to shine outward, publicly proclaiming the miraculous events that we celebrate during the festival of lights.

But what about this year?

We are living in unprecedented times. The rate of antisemitic incidents has soared around the world since October 7th. In our own community, hate motivated incidents against Jews have risen 200%. Some members have told me that they have considered taking the mezuzah off their door, or moving it from the outside of their door to inside their home. Students in our community’s public schools are avoiding wearing any jewelry or clothing that might identify them as Jewish. I hear you and share your shock, grief, fear, anger, and worry.

In the following sentences the rabbis address what to do in times of danger, that one may place the Hannukiah inside on a table and not in the window or outdoors. Is it a time of danger? This year should we place our Hannukiot inside? Should pirsum ha-nes give way to security issues? And if so, what does that say about being a Jew in Canada, or in the US, or Europe at this moment?

In these challenging times, as we look for support, feeling disconnected and alone, I am reminded of another Hanukkah miracle, one that our neighbours in communities around the world could be inspired to emulate:

In early December 1993 in Billings, Montana, a stranger threw a brick at the window of the home of Tammie and Brian Schnitzer. The window was decorated with Star of David decals and a Menorah, The brick sent jagged shards of glass into the bedroom of their 5 year old son Isaac. Fortunately, Isaac was not in bed at the time. He was watching TV with his 2 year old sister and the babysitter. Tammie had felt anxious putting up the Chanukah decorations; in recent months, a string of hate crimes had occurred around town.

Tammie was returning home from a human rights coalition that she co-chaired. At that time, the population of Jews in Billings was about 50 people, there were fewer than 500 black people. Including Hispanic people and Native Americans, the total percent of minorities in Billings was 7 percent or so of the population. But even that small number was too many for some. In 1986 white supremacists had declared Montana to be one of five states comprising their “Aryan homeland.” In the years that followed, racist incidents around the state became increasingly frequent.

Tammie refused to stay silent, even as the hate incidents escalated. Instead, the human rights coalition organized neighbours across Billings to stand against hate. Local churches, human rights and labor organizations, businesses and the local newspaper urged residents to place menorahs in their windows as a sign of solidarity. The Billings Gazette published a full-page picture of a menorah to cut out and tape up. Local businesses also distributed photocopies of menorahs, and one put a message on a billboard, proclaiming: “Not in Our Town! No Hate, No Violence. Peace on Earth.” It’s estimated at least 6,000 homes in Billings had menorahs on display. At first, there were also attacks against some of those churches. But gradually the acts of vandalism stopped, the hate literature disappeared, and the anonymous calls ended. The haters could attack a couple of Jewish homes, but they could not target thousands of menorahs.

As Jews, we light the Hannukiah each night for eight nights to celebrate the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days, for the miracle that the Maccabees won their fight for religious freedom against the Seleucids, and because we need light in the darkest season – for all of the reasons that we may have learned as children. But more importantly, lighting the Hanukkiah is an act and a statement of faith and of hope. In doing so, we not only bring light into the darkness, we make a public and powerful statement of identity, for ourselves and the world that after thousands of years, and despite all those who have sought to destroy us, we are here, we stand strong, and we are continuing to celebrate the miracle in every generation.

This year as we light the Hanukkiah each night, we will recite the words of the blessing Sheh-asah nisim la-avoteinu v’imoteinu ba-yamim ha-hem baz’man ha-zeh, “The one who performed miracles for our ancestors, in those days, at this season.” May we hold fast to our values, our tradition and our collective memory, shining light into the world in a time of darkness.

Chag Hanukkah Sameach!
Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

Filed under: Rabbi's Message

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