Last night, to get ready for Hanukkah, I pulled off the shelf a volume of the Mishnah Torah, Maimonides’ great compendium of Jewish law, to see what it had to say about Hanukkah. Four chapters deal with the laws of Hanukkah but one ruling jumped off the page:
“In a time of danger one may place the hanukkiah inside one’s house. Even if it is lit upon a table inside, it is sufficient”
A chill went down my spine… I asked myself, “What is going on here?”
The great mitzvah of Hanukkah is to publicize the miracle, to remind the world of the light that should have only burned for one day but miraculously stayed aflame for eight. That’s why we are commanded to light our hanukkiyot (Hanukkah Menorahs) and place them in a window, where they can be visible from the street, or by the front door of our homes.
But “in a time of danger,” meaning when it is not safe to be public in one’s Judaism, one can light it inside, in secret, or at least not in public view. As I read this, it struck me how important this ruling must have been for generations of Jews.
Maimonides himself was forced to flee the Almohades’ invasion of Spain, to more tolerant Muslim lands in the East, eventually settling in Egypt. I bet there were many years when he could not light his hanukkiah in public. He was also in constant contact with Jews from Christendom where persecution of the Jews was even worse.
I bet their Hanukkah celebrations were dominated by this law…
In fact, surveying our history of the last 2,000 years or so, it’s not far-fetched to suggest that we were rarely safe enough, secure enough, to “publicize the miracle,” our hanukkiyot ablaze for all to see.
How times have changed, at least for us here in America! Our freedom, our prosperity, our ability to live as Jews openly and without fear is unprecedented! It hasn’t always been easy for us here; we have had to fight for our freedom, and there still is anti-semitism, but in America we could fight and win (thanks to the rule of law) and we have.
Reading Maimonides reminds me of how lucky we are to be able to light our hanakkiyot in public, without fear. It also reminds me of how fragile our freedom is. We Jews know all too well that at any time “a Pharaoh can arise who does not know Joseph”. Laws can change; liberties can be taken away.
Hanukkah literally means “rededicate.” This Hanukkah, as we light our hanukkiyot, say our prayers, sing our songs, let’s also count the many blessings of our lives here in America; “the land of the free”, celebrating the miracle of our survival and our renewal here.
Let us also remember that even our freedom in “the land of the free” is fragile; we must be ever vigilant, ready to fight for the rule of law and the many personal liberties it safeguards for us and all Americans.
We also must remember that if anyone’s rights are at risk, the rights of all are at risk.
As we light our Hanukkah lights and celebrate our deliverance from oppression long ago, let us rededicate ourselves to safeguarding the unprecedented prosperity and freedom we enjoy today while supporting those elsewhere who still live in fear.
Freedom is a precious gift and Hanukkah is a time to bask in its light…