Chanukah is among the most widely celebrated of Jewish festivals. For eight nights, we light the menorah and praise God for the victories of our Maccabean ancestors over the forces of Antiochus centuries ago. We spin dreidels, eat latkes, and sing songs of heroism and thanks.
The prime mitzvah of Chanukah is Pirsum Ha Nes — publicizing the miracle of the little jar of oil whose fuel ignited the Menorah for eight days. The Talmud details where the menorah should be placed and the evening hours it should be displayed to maximize the number of passersby who will see it.
Given the usual proximity of Chanukah and Christmas (though not this year), the whole effort of publicizing the Chanukah miracle seems to continually expand. Lest the Cohenses not keep up with the Joneses, we now adorn our homes, make sure Chanukah decorations are displayed publicly, and hold holiday activities in malls, parks and other frequented locales.
Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, the third Gerer Rebbe, offered a different, complementary approach to these very open ways of publicizing the Chanukah miracle. He cites a verse from Psalms indicating that God gave us wonders literally "to mark (or en-sign) ourselves." What did the Rebbe mean? If we allow ourselves to be transformed by Chanukah, then we ourselves can become living beacons advertising its miracle of light.
Rabbi Paysach Krohn, in his book, Echoes of the Maggid, illustrates this point beautifully. He tells of a poor rabbi who once traveled to Milan, where he met a wealthy man. Invited as a Shabbat guest to his new acquaintance's mansion, the rabbi saw a broken flask among exquisite plates and cups. The host went on to explain.
Born in Amsterdam, the host came to Italy at age 18 to help run his sick grandfather's business. Upon his grandfather's passing the grandson remained, running the business so well that he expanded its operation. He married and had children, but led a life dedicated primarily to financial success.
One afternoon, he saw some children playing. One boy began to bitterly cry, "What will I tell my father?" Born into a poor family, the bewailed father had given his son a few precious coins to buy a flask of Chanukah oil. The boy stopped on the way home to play, the glass broke and the oil spilled. Consoling the boy, the businessman bought him an even larger flask of oil.
Walking home, the businessman kept hearing the boy's words. "What will I tell my father?" He thought, "Indeed, what will I tell my Father in Heaven on Judgment Day? That I was a single-minded success?" The man walked back to the broken glass and took it home. Remembering his parents' Amsterdam home, he lit the first of eight successive Chanukah candles that night, much to his wife and children's surprise.
In a real sense, that businessman became a living advertisement for Chanukah's miraculous power. By recounting his lived transformation, he openly embodied the wonders that can occur if we open ourselves to them.
This theme is amplified by Joseph in this week's sedra, Miketz. Praised by Pharaoh for his ability to interpret dreams, Joseph instead chooses to provide living testimony to the power of the divine, maintaining: "The answers to our well-being come from God.
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is the religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: Rabbi [email protected]