The Central Practice of Kislev
Updated: Nov 21, 2022
I am an introvert and get more energy from contemplative quiet than from social activities, even though I am a big fan of my fellow humans. I have no intuitive feel for making a big entrance and publicizing events and generally feel more at ease listening than speaking. The central spiritual practice of Kislev challenges these inclinations and offers guidance for social change activists, introverts, and extroverts alike.
“Publicizing the Miracle/Pirsumei Nisah” is the reason given, over and over again in the Talmud and halachic literature, for the primary practice of Chanukah, lighting the Menorah (aka. Chanukiah). This principle underlies when, where, and how the Menorah is lit. Ideally, lighting takes place outside on the street or in a window visible to the street, at a time that will maximize visibility for passersby, and in a way that makes it clear this is not any ordinary light, but something special. Going public and broadcasting are essential to the mitzvah. This is not the time for private contemplation and inner exploration, rather, the mitzvah calls on us to communicate something to the outside world.
What exactly is being communicated is a bit murky. According to the discussion of Chanukah in Talmud Bavli Shabbat 21-23, the reason for lighting candles is to publicize the miracle that, during the days of the Maccabees, the one undefiled container of oil lasted 8 nights while more oil was being prepared. While this is a well-known story within Jewish circles, is it clear to all the passersby that this is the reason for the candles? Who is actually the audience for this publicity? If it is the Gentile world, it would seem that we would need to do more than make candles visible to the street to get the story out there. The candles are beautiful but they don’t tell a story in themselves. If the audience are other Jews walking by - wouldn’t most of those Jews also be in their homes lighting candles at the same time?
It’s most likely the intended audience is ourselves, and the act of publicly displaying the lights is a spiritual/emotional passageway for coming into higher awareness of a central message of Jewish life - that light is always accessible, anywhere and at any time.
It is curious that there is no mitzvah of retelling of the Chanukah story like we have on Passover. The mitzvah and key symbol is a flame. And the necessity of publicizing these flames to the outside world challenges all of us, even introverts, to become testifiers to this reality of light. This is where the ritual becomes an important instrument of social justice. Authoritarianism thrives on fear and despair. That is why populist authoritarian leaders always paint dire pictures of the present and the future and posit themselves as the only savior. Liberal democracies, in contrast, rely on narratives of a present filled with potential and a future filled with hope. At their best, they are self-critical and open to correcting past injustice and making repair. Participating in Democracy is difficult and demanding, so the reward needs to feel worth the effort.
At this time of rising authoritarianism, Chanukah offers us the opportunity to practice seeing and testifying about the light and possibility that exists everywhere. Let us use the time of lighting and sitting in front of the candles to habituate ourselves to seeking, finding, and publicizing what is wholesome and good about the world and its creations (including us). We need that sense of light to do the hard work of repair and restoration. I believe this ability to see light and communicate about it is an essential precondition for healthy participation in a liberal Democracy that continuously expands the circle of who is included in power.
May we all become testifiers to the light, wherever it may be found, this month of Kislev.
Chodesh tov and Chanukah Sameach,