Why We Light the Chanukah Candles at Home by Lauren Shaps (Intro by Lori)
Why We Light the Chanukah Candles at Home
This year, Chanukah and Christmas coincide. Chanukah celebrations often seem underwhelming in comparison to the Christmas lights and festivities.
As a child, my parents would take my brother and me to visit our New York grandparents during winter vacation. Part of our trip always included a subway ride to Manhattan, where we would enjoy peering into the elegantly decorated and fanciful windows of the major department stores. Those were and continue to be reminders that we are a tiny minority in a largely Christian culture.
Chanukah is a great time to talk with our kids about how it feels to be "few amidst the many." For much of our history, Jews were actively prevented from joining the majority culture. Today, in many countries, the doors are opened wide.
Chanukah literally means "dedication." A question for ourselves and our children is, what are we dedicated to? The slogan of our local hockey team, the Ottawa Senators, is "Hockey makes us." We joke that hockey is the national religion. There's a lot of truth in that joke. Canadians (and others) make enormous sacrifices of time, energy and money because of their dedication to Hockeyism.
Judaism is dedicated to bringing light to the world. Chanukah takes place just when the days are shortest. The darkness creeps up on us, and by 5:15 p.m. here, it is pitch black. The Greeks thought that they were enlightened. Yet, we can see how values have changed dramatically within our own lifetimes and will continue to change and change again. Judaism has timeless values: belief in one G-d, the value of every human life, family, education, justice and peace. The Greeks, with the force of their great army, imposed their values and practices upon every nation within their empire.
Jews are tasked with leading by example. An interesting point of Jewish law teaches that we should light our menorah where others can see it, preferably in a window. We light wherever Jews congregate — in synagogues, schools and at public events. We light just after dark, except for on Friday, when we light the Chanukah candles before the Shabbat candles. On Friday night, we should use extra oil or taller candles to ensure that the Chanukah lights continue burning after dark. What is fascinating about this law is that it reminds us that the primary commandment to light takes place in our homes, yet the light is not for ourselves alone.
The Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague, 1525-1609) teaches that our role is to be the light of inspiration to others. The nature of a candle is that the flame can light another flame without losing any of its own light. A lovely story tells of a student who went to his teacher and asked how he could get rid of the darkness. The teacher advised him to take a stick to beat away the darkness. The student tried, but it didn't work. Next, his teacher advised him to take a broom and sweep away the darkness. Again he tried, but it did not work. Finally, his teacher told him to light a flame. This time, the darkness in the entire room vanished. Every positive deed that we do is a flame that chases away darkness.
But, if the light were only about impacting on the world, then the primary practice would not be to light in our homes. The Torah tells us, "Ner Hashem nishmat adam (The candle of G-d is the soul of a person.)" Light begins with the recognition that each of us has a spark within, a soul, that G-d has placed within our body. As Jews, we nourish that spark into a flame through the study of Torah, the voice of our core Jewish values.
When we light the Chanukah lights within our home, we are reminded that the home is the primary source of education. Much like the Holy Temple, our homes should be a place of growth and dedication. But that is still not enough. We light in a way that publicizes the miracle to others, who can see our menorah through our window. We nurture what is within, bring it to our homes, families, communities and, slowly but surely, to future generations and to the world.
This Friday night, at your Shabbat table, use the opportunity to get beyond the material, to enter the spiritual realm of Chanukah. Talk about the message of Chanukah. As Jews, what are we dedicated to and how do we show our dedication? What steps can we take to dispel the darkness, to nurture our souls and to bring enlightenment to ourselves and others? In that way, Chanukah will be about more than ancient history; the lessons of Chanukah will resonate with us today.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah,
Lauren Shaps is a JWRP City Leader and a full-time adult Jewish educator. She works closely with her husband, Rabbi Zischa Shaps, and they are blessed with five children.