It is a common scene in the United States at this time of year. The shopping malls, television commercials, and all public venues are transformed visually. As December 25 approaches, we see the evidence that we do indeed live in a predominantly Christian country. Images of Santa Claus and his reindeers, evergreen trees with dazzling decorations, crucifixes illuminated by bright lights, and depictions of the Nativity are everywhere and are inescapable. The sounds of the songs of the season fill the air.
True, in recent times, and especially in cities where Jewish people are a significant presence, consideration is given to Chanukah. Symbols of our holiday and its music are also in evidence. We are thankful for that.
It is also true that many of our Christian friends, including the gentleman I am about to introduce to you, find all this public fanfare objectionable. They think of it as garish, commercially motivated, and inconsistent with the spiritual message of their faith.
But the reaction of many to this situation is similar to the one that my gentile friend Paul, with whom I worked closely during the years I was employed by the public school system, expressed to me some time ago. It was on a day in the middle of December, and we were walking around one of the malls in suburban Washington, D.C. He remarked, “Don’t you and other Jews feel a bit outnumbered and overwhelmed at this time of year? It seems to me that your Chanukah candles make little impression in contrast to the lights on our trees and the jingle of our bells.” I told him that I appreciated his candor, and that he gave me cause for reflection.
At the time, I did not think that it would be tactful for me to tell him the truth; namely, that I had long ago reflected upon this phenomenon. And I had long ago concluded that the relatively modest manner in which Judaism celebrates Chanukah is nothing less than the essence of our religion.
This week is Shabbat Chanukah, and the weekly portion is Miketz, which we supplement with verses from the book of Numbers that relate to the Chanukah, or inauguration, of the Tabernacle. But for me, the highlight of the scriptural readings for this Shabbat has always been the words of the prophet Zechariah which constitute the Haftarah this week.
Zechariah was a man who saw many mysterious visions. He would typically ask either the angel to whom he had access, or he would inquire of the Almighty Himself, to tell him what these visions meant. And so we find, near the end of the passage we read this week, the following vision:
“I see a lamp stand full of gold, with a bowl above it. The lamps are seven in number; each has seven pipes above it, and by it are two olive trees...”
Characteristically, Zechariah asks the angel who talked with him, “What do these things mean, my lord?” The angel, like a good psychotherapist, asks him what he thinks the dream means. But the prophet confesses that he has no clue.
The angel finally responds, “This is the word of the Lord: ‘Not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.’”
This is the lesson of Chanukah. The mighty are subdued by the weak, and the many by the few. As a public demonstration of our holiday and its miracle, we eschew lavish displays and extravagant celebrations. Instead, we kindle humble chanukiyot in the windows of our homes.
It is true that the mitzvah requires pirsum haness, a public ceremony, and that the candles be lit for all passersby to behold. To that extent, our celebration is not totally modest and discrete.
However, as the Talmud tells us, when the outside world is especially hostile, we are permitted to take the menorah “and place it on our table, indoors, and that is sufficient.” For many centuries, Jews did just that, so that their celebrations of Chanukah were painfully private.
But even today, when most of us can practice our religion publicly, a few modest candles suffice. We wish to make the point, to ourselves if not for the rest of the world, that “a little light can drive away much darkness.”
We are content to let other religions celebrate their holidays as they wish; colorfully, dramatically, and publicly. We understand the power of the ubiquitous symbols and of the songs loudly sung. But for ourselves, we prefer the softer sounds of the spirit and the quiet environment of our own homes. The mitzvah is ish u’beito, every man and his house, each person with his family.
The lesson of the power of the single little candle is especially important in this day and age. We are bombarded by the images and sounds of cyberspace, and their message is often pernicious and malicious. The negative effects of most of what we hear and see on the internet and via other media are typically devastating to our hearts and souls, if not to our minds.
How do we counteract the immense influence of such overwhelming forces? We can only do so if each of us is committed to use the power of modern technology to assert tolerance, kindness, morality, and ethical behavior. Our voices may be soft, but they will be heard. The positive images that we present may be dim, but they will be seen.
The year after my encounter with my gentile friend, we met again and wandered through the same shopping mall in the middle of December. This time I decided to put my inhibitions aside. I openly shared my reflections about the discrepancy between the commercially motivated displays of the symbols of his faith and the softer, smaller, and gentler displays of our tradition's symbols. He heard me, although I cannot say that he fully agreed with me.
He did agree with me about one thing, though. “A little light can dispel much darkness.”
Happy Chanukah, the Festival of Lights.