A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 12.5.21

December 4, 2021

I originally wrote this as my Friday message, but my editor (Audrey) said it needed some revisions. Time was limited and I was unable to get it to the publisher (Cara) in time, but I wanted to share a brief Hanukkah message with you all, so here it is, a day later than usual.

Driving to pick my son up from school last week, I noticed Christmas lights starting to pop up around the neighborhood. It is December after all, and the punctilious house-decorators have gotten their early start. I love Christmas lights. Growing up, our next-door neighbors, the Douglases, had a bush-like tree in their front yard, about 10 feet high. They would string it every year with a simple, single string of multicolored Christmas lights. It was the very definition of elegance. My sister and I were invited to decorate the tree in their living room every year too. Even as a young Jewish child growing up in an observing home, I was cognizant of the honor of being lifted up by Mr. Douglas or one of his sons, Garth or Fraser (yes, I grew up in Canada), to place the star at the top of their beautiful, graceful tree. I have to admit, I also love a nice Christmas tree.

If I have a momentary twinge of guilt about this, I remind myself of Reverend Krister Stendahl’s Three Rules of Religious Understanding, the third of which is “leave room for holy envy.” The idea is, it’s okay to admire something in another religion and to recognize the beauty in a practice or tradition that is not shared by your own religion. As diaspora Jews living in a country that is predominantly Christian, it is perfectly alright for us to partake of the joy and beauty of the Christmas aesthetic without compromising our devotion to our own faith.

The practices around our winter holidays make a statement: at this time of darkness, when the days are short and the nights long, when the temperature drops and we bundle up, we keep a light shining – it’s a light of warmth, of hope, of inspiration, of promise that, soon enough, the days will get longer. In the meantime, in the darkest time, we hunker down, confident that the seasons will turn, that, before too long, winter will circle into spring and we’ll emerge from our hibernation into a lighter, warmer time.

In the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), we read, The basic mitzvah of Hanukkah is each day to have a light kindled by a person, the head of the household, for themself and their household. And the mehadrin, i.e., those who are meticulous in the performance of mitzvot, kindle a light for each and every one in the household. And the mehadrin min hamehadrin, (the extra meticulous), adjust the number of lights daily… (our current practice).

This ancient, Tannaitic passage teaches us that at one time, it was considered enough to light just one light every night. Or perhaps one light for each member of the household. Inherent in this practice is the idea that each one of us has a light shining in us, and/or that each one of us – each individual! – is responsible for keeping the light going. The world is established on a very delicate balance. Our beautiful holiday lights are the pivot that take us from one place to the next.

Christmas lights, Hanukkah lights – they’re all beautiful. Whether your aesthetic is like the Douglases, or whether you’re more of a Dyker Heights type, whether you hang menorahs and dreidels outside your house or whether the warm glow of the hanukkiyah is enough, your light is a celebration that declares your right, or better, your responsibility, to shine. As Audrey put it, we’re all lighting who we are.

Chag Urim Same’ach – May you complete the final days of the Festival of Lights in joy, spreading your own light to a world much in need of it,

Rabbi Sam