Last Friday night, we experimented with holding Friday night services at 707 [our office space]. The goal was to create a more intimate, resonant prayer experience. There is much to be said for the power of proximity in prayer. I personally refer to the space as the KT Beit Midrash, a community learning space. But many others call like it is, "the storefront." However mundane it may sound, it is undeniably true that it was built as a storefront, half a block off of Baltimore Ave, placing our prayers in the public domain. After services, more than one person commented they felt overexposed. It was vulnerable in this political climate to gather as Jews and pray in "public."
I have been holding these sentiments throughout these nights of Hanukkah. One of the core mitzvot of Hanukkah is to light the menorah in public, literally "to publicize the miracle." This is why many of us place menorahs in our front windows.
As we learn in the Talmud:
ת"ר נר חנוכה מצוה להניחה על פתח ביתו מבחוץ
It is a mitzvah to place the Hanukkah lamp at the entrance to one's house on the outside, so that all can see it.
אם היה דר בעלייה מניחה בחלון הסמוכה לרה"ר
But if one lives upstairs, they place it in the window adjacent to the public domain. (Later commentaries add it should only be but a handbreadth from the window!)
(B.T. Shabbat 21b)
As we can see, the original intention was something akin to lighting the menorah in front of city hall, to make it known and visible for all to see. I hear there are some places where people still place little tables in front of their homes to light the menorahs outside.
But the Talmud is not naive, and this is hardly the first Hanukkah to be observed in a politically hostile context. And so it goes on to teach:
ובשעת הסכנה מניחה על שלחנו ודיו
And in a time of danger, one places it on the table (inside their home) and that is enough.
This year, for the first time in my adult life, I hesitated for a moment at the idea of placing a menorah in the window. Is this such a time of danger? The rise of antisemitic violence is destabilizing at best. And then I remembered this old photo that has been circulating on social media, the image of a menorah proudly burning in a window with a nazi flag hanging (perhaps equally proudly) from a house across the street.
It seems to me that this is precisely the moment to remind ourselves of the miracles in their days that are possible in our time too. This is precisely the moment to affirm our connection to hope through this communal practice. This is precisely the moment to sing and play and eat and advertise our joy in the public domain as a sign of our resistance and our resilience.
This Shabbat marks not only the sixth night of Hanukkah, but also the new moon of Tevet. Both holidays call for us to recite the extra-special psalms of Hallel (113-118), singing:
לֹ֤א לָ֥נוּ יְהוָ֗ה לֹ֫א לָ֥נוּ
Not just for our sake,
כִּֽי־לְ֭שִׁמְךָ תֵּ֣ן כָּב֑וֹד עַל־חַ֝סְדְּךָ֗ עַל־אֲמִתֶּֽךָ׃
But for the sake of our collective dignity;
for the sake of living in service to a world full of compassion.
עָזִּ֣י וְזִמְרָ֣ת יָ֑הּ
Our strength comes through our song, it is our shield.
Open, open up the gates of justice.
זֶה־הַ֭יּוֹם עָשָׂ֣ה יְהוָ֑ה נָגִ֖ילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָ֣ה בֽוֹ׃
Let us rejoice fully!
Let the new moon, the bright lights of Hanukkah, and the songs of Hallel call us to our higher purpose. Let us light our menorahs in our windows proudly.
Hodesh Tov, Hag Urim Sameach, and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. For centuries people have participated in the practice of Daf Yomi, reading a page of Talmud a day. At this rate it takes 7.5 years to study the entire Talmud. A new cycle of study begins on January 5. For those interested in getting a daily teaching on the first masechet, Brachot (Blessings!), you can sign up here on My Jewish Learning.
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.