Publicizing the Miracle

  This week marked a first, I believe, in Naperville history – the placement of a menorah next to the Christmas tree on Naperville’s Riverwalk.  Newspaper reports, ever on the lookout for the sensational or controversial to sell their papers, highlighted the perceived threat of a lawsuit should the Park District not acquiesce to Chabad’s request to place the menorah on the Riverwalk.  But Chabad was merely asserting that they had a proven constitutional right to display a menorah, and in the end the issue was resolved amicably and in accordance with local ordinances and constitutional law. The Naperville Sun asked its readers what it thought of such a public display of a menorah.  I reviewed all 22 responses on the website.  They were unanimous in their opinion that Jewish people not only had a right to display the menorah on public property but that such a display was welcome by the community.  A number of parents commented how excited their children were to come upon a menorah on the Riverwalk.  Seeing the menorah brought a sense of pride and belonging, not only I suspect to the children but to the adults as well.  Yet, the purpose of putting up a menorah on public property is neither to improve the Jewish self-esteem of our children, nor to vigorously exercise our constitutional right to celebrate our holiday in a public manner, nor to raise the public profile of the Jewish community in Naperville – although it does all these things.  Chabad placed the menorah on the Riverwalk as a way of fulfilling an ancient mitzvah – not a “good deed” but a “divine command.”   In their brief discussion of Chanukah in the Talmud, the rabbis engage in a discussion of how to fulfill the primary spiritual goal of the holiday.  In Aramaic, one of the languages of the Talmud, this mitzvah is called “pirsumey nisa” — publicizing the miracle of Chanukah. The rabbis even allowed one to neglect performing another mitzvah in order to fulfill this one.  They said that if a person only had enough money to afford either Sabbath wine for Kiddush or oil for the Chanukah lights, they should forgo the wine and buy oil to light the candles for Chanukah.  The reason given was that publicizing the miracle that G-d did for the Jewish people was preferable to sanctifying the Sabbath with wine if a choice needed to be made. So important it is that the lights of the menorah be used ONLY to publicize the miracle of Chaunukah that the rabbis forbid using the light of the menorah for any other reason – such as reading by them or even studying Torah.  That is how we came to have the Shamash candle. The Shamash is used to light the other candles, and also may be used as a light to read or see by.  But the remaining candles are for display only – to fulfill the divine command to publicize the miracle. So central to this ritual is publicizing the miracle of Chanukah that the rabbis ordained even where they are to be lit.  The lighting should take place where the most people passing by could see the candles.  Only during times of danger could the menorah be lit in the interior of the home. Of course, today we have other ways of publicizing the miracle of Chanukah. The cantor appeared on the front page of the Downers Grove newspaper in an article about the Klezmer concert and Chanukah.  I appeared on the Nequa Valley High School television last Friday explaining the miracle of Chanukah.  All of this publicity serves to educate the general public about Jews and about G-d.  Perhaps someday soon the person checking me out at Naperville Toyota will not greet me with, “Have you set up your tree yet?” as she did, but with the more general, and sensitive, “Have a happy holiday!”  May this happen speedily and in our day! Shabbat shalom and Hag Urim Sameach