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Pirsum Ha-Nes – Publicizing the Miracle

12/05/2018 05:27:10 PM


The Talmud discussion about the proper way to light Chanukah lights seems to have a definite agenda.  The spiritual goal of all the debate about how many lights on which night, what kind of wicks, what kind of oil, where to put the candelabra – menorah or Chanukiah –is to publicize the miracle of the oil.  This may be a surprise to many.  Most of us are focused on the lighting itself, the beauty of the light for its own sake.  Indeed, the Rabbis encourage us to enjoy the beauty of the lights.  In fact, they admonish us not to use the lights for any practical purpose – the lights are too holy to use them as reading light, for example.  

Publicizing the miracle – pirsum ha-nes in Hebrew – is so important to the Rabbis that they say it takes precedence over the Shabbat Kiddush!  If you only have enough money for one or the other, the rabbis say you must light Chanukah lights.  

Why must we publicize the miracle?  What miracle are we publicizing?  The miracle that a small amount of oil lasted eight days instead of one?  What about the miracle of the few against the many?  To paraphrase the great anthropologist Margaret Meade: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi Emerita of Temple Emanuel in Los Angeles, stated in an article in the Huffington Post that the miracle within that miracle is “the courage to be different.”  Chanukah is about winning a fight against assimilation – gaining the right to worship and live according to our Torah.

We publicize the miracle to show our courage, to be unafraid to identify our house as belonging to Jews.  Is this a risk?  Sometimes. You may have heard that a Jewish family in Poway had their outdoor Chanukah lights and decorations vandalized this past week.  Swastikas were spraypainted on their house.  The family are members of Temple Adat Shalom.  They are planning to put their decorations back up proudly.  THAT is pirsum ha-nes!  

In order to perform this mitzvah, our Chanukiot, our Chanukah menorahs, are supposed to face the street and be visible to passersby.  I usually put an electric Chanukiah in a street-facing window – and light actual candles on a Chanukiah on the dining room table where the people inside can most enjoy them.  

If you have not yet performed this mitzvah, I invite you to do so this Chanukah.  Incidentally, although elaborate outdoor Chanukah lights and decorations are considered controversial because of the influence of Christmas, I believe that outdoor decorations are a perfect way to perform pirsum ha-nes!  This is a time to be proud to be Jewish, to stand up to the bullies and haters.  This is a universal value as well.  If Jews are free to practice their religion, everyone else is too.  Where is the Syrian-Greek Empire now?  The Jewish people are still here.  To quote the words of Peter Yarrow in his beautiful Chanukah song, Light One Candle – 

Don’t let the lights go out, they’ve lasted for so many years!
Chag Urim Sameach!  - Happy Festival of Lights!

Sun, July 21 2019 18 Tammuz 5779