Exit Ramp: Keep the light on

Exit Ramp: Keep the light on

I had a long appointment in the city the other day. It was already dark when I headed toward Penn Station for the return trip to New Jersey and I was eager to get home. But the child in me insisted that we stop to see the holiday windows at Macy’s. How could I possibly tell her no?

Snowflake lights lit up the sky as I took my place in line behind two chasidic women pushing strollers. A French couple soon came up behind me. Standing among that smiling global assemblage of tourists and locals made it easy to forget the uncertainty constantly reshaping our world. The little girl in me tapped her feet to the music and got lost in the scenes unfolding on the other side of the glass. 

For the duration of the train ride home, I thought about how daunting it must be for the designers to create something original and eye-popping year after year. Macy’s launched its Christmas window tradition in the late 1800s. That’s a long time to keep coming up with new themes. 

Then again, the Jewish people have been advertising the Chanukah story for thousands of years, positioning our menorahs in our front windows well before Macy’s ever conceived of its own seasonal tradition. In fact, the rabbinic sages who established the post-biblical holiday made publicizing the Chanukah miracle the essence of the festival itself. 

We actually celebrate two miracles on Chanukah, both beacons in what was a dark time in our history. The first is the military victory by Judah and the Maccabees over Antiochus, the ruler who tried to strip us of our national identity by prohibiting everything from circumcision to Torah study. Yet it is the second, the well-known miracle of the oil that burned in the Temple for eight days instead of one, that the sages wanted us to share with the world.

I consider this while driving to the dentist, as I pass menorah after outsized menorah at strip mall entrances and other locations along the side of the road. I utter a prayer of thanks for the local Chabad, which is doing an unparalleled job of publicizing the miracle to the endless stream of drivers on the highway. I also count the blessing that we live in a place where it is still safe to broadcast our Jewish identity, certainly not something to take for granted these days. 

By the time I pass a fourth blue-bulbed electric menorah in a store window, I begin to see the wisdom of the sages in their belief that we shouldn’t keep the miracle of Chanukah to ourselves. Publicizing it draws us closer to God, like moths to a holy flame that shines bold against the night sky, stoking the fires of our relationship with Him. Meanwhile, doing so also opens our eyes to other miracles, not just the oil that burned for eight days long ago, but the timeless, yet still extraordinary, everyday variety — the beating hearts and newborn babies and rising suns. 

Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

I fall into the latter camp, and it strikes me that one of God’s greatest miracles is that He hasn’t put us here on earth alone. When I watch the flames of the menorah reflected in the glass of our front window, it looks to me as if the two sets of lights are leaning in head to head, drawing near from across a divide. Judaism brings us closer to one another, calling on us to be a light unto the nations, to pursue justice and to offer kindness, and to lean in to help, even when we must swim against the tide to get there. 

The essence of Chanukah doesn’t lie in the gifts and dreidels or even the donuts and latkes, though they sure make the holiday fun. Instead, it is about the miracles that light our way in the dusk of a shape-shifting world and the beacon we shine for one another in yet another uncertain time in our history. 

Chanukah is a reminder. There will always be darkness, and there will be miracles, too. But it is up to us to be the light.

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