What does Hanukkah mean to you?
When I asked people this question, I got many answers, including: light in the darkness, family, togetherness, renewal, hope, pride, salvation, miracles, Divine Presence, and gratitude.
My personal answer is a little more complex, but ultimately encompasses all of these things.
When I think of Hanukkah, I think of the tension between inside and outside. Classically, the central struggle of Hanukkah involved defending Jewish culture from being overtaken by Hellenistic influences. However, the question of how we ought to relate to outside cultures is not simple. We do not completely reject outside influences, wisdom, or culture. At the same time, we do not accept them wholesale and uncritically.
Instead, while certainly not the only position, a general trend in Jewish thought is to take a more complex approach that rests on a fundamental principle I believe is encapsulated in the following verse. When Noah describes and predicts the future of the nations that will descend from his children, he says:
“Yaft Elokim leYefet, veyishkon beohalei Shem” (Genesis 9:27) – May God enlarge, or beautify, Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem.
There is much beauty to be found in Japheth (the nation traditionally associated with the Hellenistic culture), and it adorns our tents — the tents of Shem. However, this model is only possible if one posits that one has one’s own tent, one’s own space, a clearly delineated set of values and ideology that is grounded in one’s own beliefs – ohelai Shem. When I am clear on my own locus of meaning, I can choose what else I want to bring in to my tent to enrich and enhance it. I begin with defining who I am and what I believe, and only then am I able to evaluate and measure what belongs inside my tent and what remains outside.
Similarly, there is a halacha relating to Hanukkah that states that the fundamental fulfillment of the mitzva of lighting the Hanukkah candles is fulfilled by ner ish u’beito — lighting one hanukkiyah (menorah) per family. The reason we light the candles is to achieve persumei nisa, that is, to publicize the Hanukkah miracle. The image evoked here is of each family unit at the core, radiating its light to the outer world.
Again, we have a system in which the inner boundary is clearly delineated, and, once this is achieved, the focus is turned to the world outside, in this case, to communicate something of value from the inside outward.
Often, in today’s world, boundaries get confused, or worse, erased. While technology and social media can create community, they can also contribute to this erasure and confusion of boundaries. It is becoming increasingly important to remember and delineate what I think of as our concentric circles of relationship – self, family, friends, acquaintances, community, and so on out.
We move from the center, from ourselves, outward. We do the difficult but necessary work of strengthening ourselves first, and then focusing on our interpersonal relationships, from the inside out, from circle to circle. In addition, we preserve the autonomy and sacredness of each circle, by deciding what is private and unique within each. At the same time, from this place of groundedness and clarity about who are and what values we hold, we are open to interacting and connecting with ever widening circles. We can strive to deepen our closest relationships, while at the same time gaining from, and giving to, the circles of community all around us.
Hanukkah, the holiday of light in the darkness, of home, and also of connection to the outside, provides an opportunity to live out these principles.
“Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkanotecha Yisrael” (Numbers 24;5).
How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.
How beautiful are the tents of Jacob, each one shining with its unique Hanukkah light, together creating an outward glow that can, hopefully, light up the world.