The act of lighting candles on Chanukkah is understood in halakha to be an act of pirsumei nisa, publicizing the miracle. If the candles are not able to be seen, then one does not fulfil the mitzvah. Through our lighting, we proclaim: The Maccabees had pride in their faith and were willing to stand up for it. It is for that reason that Judaism survived. We are proud to be Jewish and we want everyone to know it.
Except, not always. Already the Talmud states that at times of danger, the candles are to be lit indoors, away from the sight of the Gentiles. Due to perhaps justified fear, the mitzvah and the expression of one’s Jewishness must be kept private and hidden away.
For many centuries when Jews lived in hostile surroundings, candles were indeed lit indoors, visible only to the family. But for a long time that has not been the case in this country – at least as far back as I can remember. While candles are often lit indoors in America due to practical concerns of wind and the like, they are also intentionally lit in the window so that they will be visible to all, both Jews and non-Jews. We have been proud to declare our Jewish identity and felt safe doing so.
Tragically, that is changing. As everyone knows, in recent years anti-Semitism has gone mainstream, there has been rapid growth of hate groups and hate speech, and more and more murderous anti-Semitic attacks on synagogues and Jewish locations, attacks which have claimed the lives of so many. As a result, we have heightened security and placed guards at our synagogues and schools. We have pulled a little bit indoors, where it is safe. And this is, sadly, necessary. And yet, this Channukah, I ask us all to move outside. To reaffirm our Jewish pride, channel the Maccabees courage and say: “we will be safe, but we will not be afraid.” Let us not forget the message of pirsumei nisa, let us say, we will not be deterred. We are going to light those candles for everyone to see!
This was modeled beautifully by the 92nd Street Y’s recent decision, in response to growing anti-Semitism, to hire a senior director of Jewish life to “more publicly assert its Jewish identity.” More publicly, not less.
And it is this spirit that animates the “Shine a Light” event rally in NY this coming Monday, gather Jews from all walks of life to say, we won’t be afraid, we are proud to be Jewish and we will say so in the public square. Outdoors, not indoors.
So of course, be safe. Take reasonable precautions. But don’t be afraid. Stand up for who you are. Be proud of being a Jew. Only by bringing the light out of the house, to the public square for everyone to see, will we begin to dispel the darkness.