Last Thursday I’m sitting in my Rotary meeting, and the president is going through announcements as usual. It sounds just as entertaining as all that. At some point he mentions a charity project for Christmas and the person next to me (not Jewish) leans over and says “doesn’t that bother you?” What she meant was the question of representation; why did Christmas have to be the default. Why couldn’t he be more sensitive.
I shrugged; honestly, I kind of assume that Christmas is where people’s heads are at, even today in a world where you can buy a menorah at Target in Wilmington Delaware (or even Shreveport Louisiana) and Ryan Seacrest mentions Chanukah first in his broadcast. What I find funny, and I’ve shared this with friends, is that when you stop to think about it, Chanukah is as quintessential an American holiday as you’re going to get. Think about it: what do we celebrate? Freedom, especially religious freedom. Freedom won by insurgents fighting off foreign influences. And how do we celebrate that freedom? Through fried food, gambling and lighting things on fire. I mean really, what could be more American than that?
Of course, the most important aspect of Chanukah, at least for me, is the idea of publicizing the miracle. We’re not just supposed to light lights in the privacy of our homes; we’re supposed to put those lights out, in such a way that people can see them, in order to let people know that, in days gone by, our people won its liberty and restored what was lost. This is despite our history of having to hide our identities or feeling uncomfortable broadcasting our Jewishness for fear of bigotry or reprisal; we put the lights out and remind the world of the importance of freedom and justice and goodness.
If that is true for putting the lights in our windows, so must it be true in our own lives as well. As Jews we must be, in our own lives, lights to the world, reminding those around us this season and every season of our values; supporting the vulnerable when possible, lovingly rebuking inappropriate and hateful behavior when necessary, and speaking truth to power always. As with any good American, any good Jewish holiday, lighting lights and singing songs only works if we are reminded of our task--to be a light ourselves, to speak out for what is right, and do what is right.
Tomorrow night we light the lights, we celebrate freedom. Let’s do it publically, joyfully. And let’s let the lights remind us of our tasks as Jews and Americans, to be a light of freedom and justice to those around us. To remind those around us that these were not just miracles that happened in that time in this season, but that we may fulfill that miracle ourselves, in our own ways. Amen.