Jewish law requires that we publicize the miracle of Chanukah -- both when we light and where we light. We light the Chanukah candles after dark when they are most visible and we light in the early evening when most people are still out and about. We place our chanukiot by the window facing the street or at the entrance to our homes, again so as many people as possible will know about the miracle. But what exactly is the miracle we want the world to know about? Why do we care that other people see the lights of Chanukah?
According to the liturgy, we thank God on Chanukah for the miraculous victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks: "You [God] defended them, vindicated them, and avenged their wrongs" (Al Hanisim). In the poem/song "Maoz Tzur," the author expands the miracle into gratitude for God's protection of the Jewish people from the Egyptians, the Babylonians, from Haman and, more generally, from all of Israel's enemies throughout history. Such protection from our enemies is something we dare not take for granted. Giving thanks is not only laudable -- it is a mitzvah. But why is it so important for us to publicize God's protection of the Jews to the world?
On one level, the lights of Chanukah symbolize to the world and to ourselves that God's covenant with us has never been broken. Long after the great empires of Greece and Babylonia and Egypt have faded away, it is the Jewish people and culture and faith that continue to bring light into the world. In a world where the darkness of anti-Semitism still looms, the lights of Chanukah say proudly, "the Jews are still here!"
On another level, the Chanukah lights are lights of brotherhood with all who suffer in righteousness. They spread a message of hope to the downtrodden. Chanukah celebrates the victory of a small, weak people against a great empire. We thank God who "delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the corrupt into the hands of the pure, the guilty into the hands of the innocent" (Al Hanisim). We put the chanukiah in the window as a way of saying to those who are persecuted, those who suffer, those who are weak and those who are pure, "there is hope." There is light in times of darkness. We know what darkness is and we have not forgotten. You are not forgotten. The candles shine a message of redemption to a broken world: never stop believing that the forces of light and goodness will ultimately triumph.
Finally, maybe it is not only the world that needs to know about the miracle; maybe it is we who need reminding. As the lights of Chanukah shine into our own houses, they remind us again of what is most important -- our mission to bring God's light into the world. The Chasidic tradition teaches that the "final signing" of the year is not on Yom Kippur or Hoshanah Rabbah (the last day of Sukkot), but rather on the last day of Chanukah. After a long autumn of work and school and the toil of daily life, it is so easy to forget our own source of light, so easy to forget the selves we meant to be when Yom Kippur ended only a few short months ago.
This year, the sixth night of Chanukah is Dec. 24 -- a night known to our Christian neighbors as Christmas Eve. That night, many Christians will be alone in hospitals and old age homes, in soup kitchens and homeless shelters. What are you doing on Christmas Eve? Many Christians who normally help the homeless or work in hospitals will be (or will want to be) home with their families. Can you contribute? Can you bring some of the light of the Chanukah candles into the world in a concrete way? This December, bring a little Yom Kippur into Chanukah, and a little Chanukah into Christmas.
Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center at the University of Judaism.