These Small Lights
Chanukah reminds us that we are not the same as everyone else.
We have polished the silver menorahs until they gleam. My husband’s menorah is tall and majestic with wide branches spreading out of a silver trunk, the holder filled with pools of golden oil. The children’s are homemade of clay, and tile with colorful candles. We hang the crayon sketches of draidels and latkes, and gold coins. We display all of this proudly in the front window where those who know can look and see. My children beam with pride and anticipation.
But the whole scene isn’t very big. You have to look for it to know that it is there. And who will look for it? The season outside is so very big, so exaggerated and all encompassing. Their holiday has music and peppermints and men standing outside of stores ringing bells. They have emails and catalogues and matching striped pajamas.
And we have these small silver lights.
I think of this as I stop myself from humming in the car along with songs that are not my own. I think of how it must seem to our children. How it sometimes seems even to me. I wonder how our holiday has been made to seem small, insignificant, a momentary aside in the glitzy false cheer of this advertising extravaganza. How we have been sidelined in our own homes.
The evening approaches and I tend to the lights, filling and refilling, cleaning out old wicks and as I do I think again of the privacy of our song and our celebration. And I suddenly realize that this is right. Isn’t that, in fact, what the story was all about? They were many and we were few. Their culture was appealing and inviting. It desired to swallow up the small remnant of Judaism, to make them all part of a large whole, the same as everyone else. And that small band of Jews, those stubborn Maccabees refused. Faced with a life of hardship, hiding and privation they insisted. We don’t want what you have. We would rather live in caves, in battle, on the run, than accept the sameness you offer us. We want only to be what we are, what we have always been. Separate, different, other.
Their culture desired to swallow up the small remnant of Judaism. And those stubborn Maccabees refused.
It was ridiculous, really. A scraggly band of untrained guerrillas waging war on a superpower. It could never succeed and they knew it. It must have seemed like a death wish to anyone logical. But it wasn’t a death wish and they weren’t being logical. They were being faithful. They were proving with action their passionate belief that God would not let them fail. That we Jews were meant to be what He told us to be when He said, “Be holy and pure as I am holy.” They believed with the pure faith of the righteous that if they showed Him their yearning He would stand with them. And with God on their side, they knew that the few could overcome the many, the weak could overpower the strong.
And so because of their faith, the Jewish people survived. Our culture, our pride, our stubbornness all survived. And all these years later we, their descendants, find the faith to defy our surroundings. Not for us the glitzy cheer of tinsel, not for us the big red man. Our menorahs are small but beautiful, our tiny flames light up the darkness of this long lonely night.
Stepping back from the table, I think of our insistence on maintaining customs that must seem antiquated; our way of dress, the Jewish names we give our children, our careful Shabbos observance. I think of our refusal to be assimilated, our insistence on maintaining the purity of our line, our pride at our differentness. I think that maybe our tiny lights might be a signpost to someone who has lost his way in the darkness of this exile, who needs to know where home is.
I think of all this as I fill the candles, as I grate the potatoes, as I ready myself for the night, preparing the scene so my children can see and they can learn what we Jews have known all along.
That the lights are like us, small but pure. And even though you have to look for them, you may find that they are looking for you too.