Tis the season to be Jewish
The Florida evening outdoors were filled with glittering lights, as a lone man took in the scene from his office window.
So begins one of my favorite stories about Jerry Levine putting in a late night at work, and wondering what his place is…what the Jew’s place is…in a country that is predominantly Christian, with tall pine trees and red and green decorations to show for it.
He wished G-d…someone…would send him a sign to let him know where he belonged.
Let’s face it, Jerry thought, Judaism is quaint…even fun at times…but it’s not a glamorous religion.
In fact, if one in dire straits cut potatoes in half and scooped out the centers and used them as candle-holders, it would be rendered a kosher menorah.
Contrast that to the glittery scenes of the Season.
It’s true that one will see holiday décor everywhere…but that’s when we need to look at our own identity the most, and bask in what is ours.
Following are three components of the menorah to create our own meaningful, beautiful backdrop to this Festival of Lights.
1- The Oil
As Chanukah commemorates the Jews’ triumph over darkness, remembering the miracle of the Maccabees finding one pure cruise of oil to light the Temple menorah- oil that was only enough to keep the flames burning for one day that ultimately lasted for eight days- we do the same, by lighting a menorah, preferably with pure olive oil, for eight days.
The oil itself represents who we are as a people- it simultaneously permeates all it comes in contact with, permanently saturating, and at once will immediately separate and rise above when mixed with other liquids. One can say that the Jewish nation, with its sacred obligation to influence their surroundings with light and morality, have always historically impacted each and every land and culture they’ve intermingled with, from ancient Mesopotamia to the media’s fascination with Israel today. At the same time, while our contributions to the world are irreversible, and while Jews have gone to great lengths to express appreciation for others’ love and friendship and kindness, one can say that our place in society is also a separate one. We are still the moral conscience of the world- but while many embrace this fact, others abhor it. As individuals, we, too, have a responsibility to bring comfort and goodness and kindness to any environment or people we come in contact with. At the same time, we must never feel pressured to abandon the Torah values which make us who we are, even when it’s hard, even when it hurts.
We stay within, and rise above.
2- The Order
A menorah contains eight candle-holders. If one is lighting on Day Two, the empty holders are still there. The ultimate way to maximize growth and potential is to fully act on one moment at a time, while looking ahead to more growth and potential- as we celebrate each accomplishment, we can look to the future and know that there is more.
Judaism teaches us that we never arrive at perfection; that bettering ourselves is the work of a lifetime. My teacher and mentor the Lubavitcher Rebbe embodied this mindset. When a college student visited him in the 60’s and told him frankly that he admired him greatly and would love to be his Chassid but couldn’t wrap his head around the Chassidic garb, the Rebbe responded, “If all you do is wake up each morning and ask yourself, ‘How can I make today better than yesterday? How can I bring even more goodness to this world?’ I will be proud to call you my chassid.”
There’s always more light to ignite.
So how is it done on Chanukah?
-We make the blessing (on the first night one is lighting the menorah they also make the Shehechiyanu blessing)
-We add one additional candle each night, lighting the wicks from left to right, using the shamesh, a separate candle designated for lighting the menorah
-Even if we attend a public menorah lighting, every Jewish home should have its own menorah lighting.
3- The Flames
We watch the candles for 30 minutes after they are lit to complete this mitzvah, as the flames, in the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe‘s words, “tell us the story of Chanukah, of the Jewish people,” perhaps together with some crispy hot latkes and sour cream.
And finally, let’s think about how tomorrow evening when we light yet one more candle, we will have yet one more accomplishment- in how we related to the people around us, in how we related to G-d, in how we related to our soul. Judaism is big into taking stock of our lives.
Like our friend Jerry at the window.
But the story doesn’t end there, dear readers.
In middle of Jerry Levine’s musings, his world went dark; there was a power outage in his business district.
Realizing that it would take some time to rectify, he locked up his office and cautiously made his way through the darkness to the parking lot.
When he walked outside he was hit by a scene he would not soon forget: All the street lights were down, the decorations off, the holiday tree barely visible against the ink-black sky.
But there was one halo of light still going strong, defying electricity and all the other forces going against it, that told him he had already come home- a menorah with three flames proudly publicizing the third night of Chanukah, telling the story of millions of flames and millions of souls…still burning bright. We don’t have trees with tinsel. But our menorah- be it of potatoes in a concentration camp or of the finest silver in the White House- reminds the world, and reminds ourselves, that we are a magnificent, miraculous, everlasting flame.