The Feminine Light: Chanukah’s Internal Power
It’s the radiance emanating from within the home, not the dazzle from without, that ultimately lights up the darkness.
A friend shared a mini-episode from her life which serves as a great metaphor for the contrast between the public and private arena.
Within less than a minute of limping into her humble abode after attending a gala affair, my friend's contact lenses were happily ensconced in her lens case and her glasses were re-perched on her nose. Her hair, which had bobbed around on her cheeks all evening, was gathered up into a pony tail on the top of her head. Her high-heeled shoes lay sprawled in the corner while her feet luxuriated in her delicious slippers… when there was a knock on the door. It took her a second to realize why the eyes of the young girl who had come to bring over something she’d left in her ride's car widened in surprise at the sight of her. In the two minutes since she had walked in the front door she had metamorphosed from Cinderella at the ball to Cinderella, the scullery maid.
All those beautifying agents that constrict, confine, cramp, compress, crush, and contour are great metaphors for the inhibition that the public arena imposes in all areas of our lives. Walking outside our front door always involves some sort of posturing and pretension — even when we’re wearing sneakers. And that applies to even the most honest and authentic among us. We always hide much more about ourselves than we reveal — it's an intrinsic deception endemic to the human condition.
Even if you can rattle off someone's daily schedule, it doesn't mean you know anything of real substance about them. The facts that we know about them are like party clothes -- they create a certain look, but do more to hide than to reveal the real thing.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that I don't know my neighbor's innermost struggles or dreams or hopes. I don't even necessarily want to know more than I do as I smile politely on my way to take out the garbage. The affectation we tend to adopt in the public sphere is what keeps society functioning without getting bogged down.
The danger is when we let that superficial, inauthentic posturing that the public domain demands slip into the private domain—our homes.
Right Makes Might
What makes a private arena private is that it’s not public. Whether they’re made of brick, concrete, or sheets strung up on a string, the purpose of the walls that delineate a private sphere from a public one is to create an inner space that is protected not only from the elements but from the seeing eyes and hearing ears of the public arena. If the public arena demands a certain level of pomp and pretension, it’s the private arena that allows us to access our deeper, truer, and more authentic selves.
Yet, for the best of reasons—work, exercise, fun, appointments, comradeship — we spend less and less of our time at home, and more and more out in the public, both literally outside the walls of our home, and figuratively, in public spaces with the internet. We seem be on a perpetual gallop out the front door.
And then comes Hanukkah.
In a very real way, Hanukkah is a celebration of the home. On Chanukah, the home, whose strength comes specifically from its hiddenness from the public eye, does the world a favor and allows some of its brilliant light to shine out into the public realm.
On Chanukah we celebrate the defeat of the "strong into the hands of the weak, the few into the hands of the many, the impure into the hands of the pure, and the righteous into the hands of the wicked". Chanukah is a celebration of specifically those qualities which generally do not win in this world. Precisely what usually puts one at the bottom of the totem pole in This World suddenly came out on top. Strength, might, power and stature retreated in face of the forces of weakness, fewness, purity and goodness. The qualities of might were vanquished by the qualities of right. From inside the home, the bastion of internality, the lights that celebrate these qualities shine out into the big, wide world.
Home is Where the Heart Is
In Judaism, the female persona is intimately bound up with the home. "Behold, she is in the tent," Abraham said to the angels in praise of Sarah. "I call her not my wife," Rabbi Yosi said, "I call her my home." But, interestingly, it is not only the woman who is associated with the home. The quintessential Jew — the patriarch, Jacob – is associated with the home as well.
In contrast to Esau, who is labeled "hunter" — cunning, predatory and powerful – Jacob is called "dweller of tents". Esau found his sphere of activity out in the fields and forests. Jacob's world was in the tent, focused on the wisdom which can only be accessed in a world protected from the conniving and striving, the show and pretension, the might and the fight of the outside world.
Jacob and Esau's diametrically opposed worldviews come to a head in a historic encounter. Deep within their interchange lies the eternal struggle that continues on to this day in our own minds and hearts. Do we focus on conquest, acquisition, production? Or do we remember the Chanukah truth about what is really important--what goes on in the quiet places, far from the public eye and fanfare-- inside our homes?
In a sudden burst of friendliness, Esau, asks Jacob to join forces with him. "I have tons of stuff," Esau says. I am strong. I am powerful. Do you know what the two of us can accomplish together? Oh, the places we'll go and the things we will do!
But Jacob, the tent dweller declines his offer. "I will go ahead slowly, accommodating the needs of my children and my flock," Jacob says. The lights, camera, action— the likes, fans, and followers—that beguile you don't speak to me. My focus is not on the grand slam but on stepping up to the plate to do what needs to be done.
Translating Jacob's sentiments into today's parlance is enough to bring on a Sheryl Sandberg induced cringe. What could be less "leaning in" than saying that one's progress in life will be determined by our responsibilities toward others? Where is your sense of ambition? Your drive? Your ego?
But, as the Chanukah story teaches us, life is not really about dazzle and show. The very traits that usually lose, won. We light the Chanukah menorah inside the house, but we place it at the window or the doorway. It’s the radiance emanating from within the home, not the dazzle from without, that ultimately lights up the darkness.
A version of this article originally appeared in Mishpacha magazine.