The Light of Hope and Justice
by Rabbi Gil Steinlauf
Scholar-in-Residence, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington
Chanukah is the Festival of Lights, where Jewish people celebrate the miracle of our small Jewish numbers overcoming tyranny in the Land of Israel. One of the central ideas of Chanukah is something called “Pirsumei Nisa.” This phrase, which literally translates as “publicizing the miracle,” constitutes one of the core observances of Chanukah, along with the lighting of the menorah and the reciting of the blessings. We can see examples of Pirsumei Nisa in public menorah displays, proudly celebrating our festival alongside Christmas displays. The rabbis in ancient times, however, were very clear in teaching that the most important place to publicly display our menorahs was not in public squares and parking lots, but in our own homes! We are to light the menorah and place the lights in a window so that others can see the light of the miracle emerging from within the place of our families, from our personal lives. The Talmud (Shabbat 23a) even goes so far as to say that if we are traveling during Chanukah, better we should have someone light the menorah in our homes for us, even though we’re not actually there.
Why such an emphasis on our homes? Firstly, it is in our own homes where Judaism is most important - more important than synagogues or any other public place. The home is where we live our most authentic lives, in our primary relationships, where our impact on others is the strongest. Second, we want to publicize the light of the Chanukah miracle out to the world as a statement of strength, bravery and faith in the way the Maccabees bravely stood up for the Jewish people even as ancient tyrants tried to stamp us out. Nowadays on Chanukah, we shine lights from our private space out into the world bravely demonstrating that the lives we lead reflect a yearning for a better, more just world.
This Chanukah, we can still see much darkness in our world. The recent massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, as well as an uptick in hate speech, bigotry, global anti-Semitism and violence represent the tyranny we face in our days. This year, perhaps more than in many years, we must live the wisdom of Pirsumei Nisa. We must remind our neighbors, our society, and our world who we are as decent people, and what we really stand for - a world where all people can live in peace, where no one power seeks to oppress or terrorize or persecute another. We must demand that the world take notice that the miracle of overcoming hatred, bigotry and oppression can happen when we put faith in our potential to lift up the light.
Most importantly, we Jewish people remind ourselves and the world that, through sheer force of our historical memory, no one should ever despair. The light of our menorahs represents, as Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov once taught, “Ain Ye’ush ba’olam klal,” “There is no despair in the world.” By this he means that any darkness we encounter always can be driven away. With the light that we possess - through our heritage and our values - we can show the whole world that there is always an alternative to hatred and fear and corruption. And that light begins in our homes writ large - in our own choices, day by day, to live the wisdom and insights borne of our teachings and traditions.
So this year, when you see the lights of those glowing chanukiyot, remember the gift of what Chanukah brings to the world. Remember that what we really are doing is rekindling the light of hope and justice - a light that can drive away the darkness of all the despair we know.