By Rabbi Aaron Benson
You’re as likely to hear someone bemoaning the commercialization of the holidays as you are to hear someone wish you happy ones. As we enter this festive season, it can be a challenge to properly “get in the spirit” to think of the blessings and good things we have when at the same time we hear constantly the calls around us that we need more of this or that.
For Jews, there is one way in which the holiday of Hanukkah is supposed to be “commercialized” — or at least “advertised.” Jewish tradition decrees the Hanukkah menorah, the nine-branched candelabra by which we mark the holiday using its central candle to light an additional new candle each night of the eight-day holiday, should be placed in a prominent place so that others can see it. Therefore, you will often see menorah displays in front of synagogues or in the windows of Jews’ home, and in Israel, one will often see menorahs displayed in small glass boxes outside of people’s homes.
The lights of the menorah are meant to remind us of three things. First, they are to be a light in the darkness of winter. Second, they are to remind us of the lights of the seven-branched menorah that was a decoration in the Holy Temple in ancient times, and third, they remind us of the story of Hanukkah, when in the 2nd century BCE the Jews defeated the Greek occupiers of their country and, as tradition would have it, a single vial of pure oil was discovered and lasted for eight days while additional oil was prepared to be used in the temple.
Incidentally, this is where the name of the holiday originates as the word “Hanukkah” means “rededication.” However, it was not just lighting the menorah that was considered sufficient for celebrating the holiday. Our ancient sages decreed that the miracle of Hanukkah must be “advertised,” it must be put on display and shared with others so that the hard-won blessing of religious freedom and tolerance the holiday commemorates could be experienced by all people. This is a Hanukkah lesson we can all share.
We are all blessed to live in a country in which our religious differences are protected and in fact we believe that these and all our many differences are what make the United States such a wonderful country. Let us be proud then, when we see the many lights of this holiday season, for all of them, whether Hanukkah lights or not, communicate the message of Hanukkah — the message of our religious freedom.
The author is the rabbi at the North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson Station.