There will be close to one thousand Jews gathering tonight at my congregation to light a menorah, nosh on some typical Hanukkah fair, and watch fireworks (what could be more appropriate for the Festival of Lights?!). We share this evening with another congregation just a stone’s throw away, and over the last few years it has developed into a much anticipated communal celebration of the holiday.
It is true, it can be a bit of a ‘ballagan,’ a crazy scene. Imagine 1,000 Jews trying to make their way to a few tables piled high with latkes and you’ll have the picture. To paraphrase Woody Allen, it is sort of like kiddish after Shabbat services, only more so. Bu despite the logistical challenges, despite the crowds, despite the difficulties in terms of parking, people come, and they truly seem to enjoy the evening.
I wonder why?
Certainly it is a striking Jewish identity moment for everyone. Simply stated, there is a power to numbers. Lighting a menorah at home with your family can feel like a sacred moment. But lighting a menorah with a thousand people, everyone chanting the blessings, all those voices raised together enacting a ritual that is two thousand years old, that experience has its own particular power. You know you are part of something significant, something serious, something that others – many others – feel is worthwhile. The experience also connects in well with the theme of the holiday, namely that Jews can be powerful and can control their own destiny. That is something Jews in America rarely celebrate in such a public way. The experience is connective in an ethnic kind of way, even a bit tribal in feel.
There is also the light of the menorah. Maybe it doesn’t mean what it once did. After all, in our day and age we can turn lights off and on with ease, flicking a switch, or even just speaking a word to our ‘smart’ bulbs. But there is something about real flame, something ancient and almost arcane, magical and mystical. We gather around as the candles are lit and the flames flicker, insistently pushing back against the darkness during some of the darkest and longest nights of the entire year. The light of Hanukkah is a light of the spirit, the flame bringing us back to an earlier time when our ancestors gathered around their camp fires to listen to stories of hope and fate and God.
On the Shabbat of Hanukkah we read the words of the prophet Zechariah in the text of the haftara: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, said he Lord of Hosts.” It is the light of that spirit that Hanukkah still brings into our lives – and our world – today.