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Grasping the snake by the tail: Hanukkah in a time of danger

NOVEMBER 29, 2018 – When I met my wife, I learned that her family used the same tune for their blessings over Shabbat candles and Hanukkah candles. I expect many families do the same. They don’t just mix the tunes: People often confuse the distinctive meanings of Shabbat and Hanukkah candles. But this distinction can teach us a lot about the meaning and practice of Hanukkah.

Shabbat candles are supposed to increase the joy of Shabbat: they illuminate a joyful meal and provide light for studying. Meanwhile, Hanukkah lights are an end in themselves (at least for the first half hour). They are not for any practical use; instead, their majestic glow reminds us of the Hanukkah miracle.

The other important difference is that Shabbat candles are lit inside the home, while Hanukkah candles traditionally are placed at or outside the doorway in order to remind us of the miracle. According to Talmud Shabbat (21b): “The Sages taught: It is a mitzvah to place the Hanukkah lamp at the entrance to one’s house on the outside. If he lived upstairs, he places it at the window adjacent to the public domain.”

Chabad-Lubavitch publicized this Talmudic distinction when they began lighting large hanukkiot in public 45 years ago (mah gadlu!) As I was writing this column this week, I learned that a front window of Chabad in Peabody was shattered by a BB gun pellet. I was again reminded of the challenging realities of this moment in American Jewish life. Our community feels vulnerable after the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue and an increase in anti-Semitic incidents. Sadly, this sense of vulnerability is nothing new for Jews. The above Talmud passage continues: “And in a time of danger, he places it [the chanukiah] on the table and that is sufficient.”

And so this Hanukkah, we ask ourselves: is this a time of danger? Is 5779 the year we move our hanukkiot indoors? Last year, congregants at my synagogue felt we should refrain from building our outdoor fourteen-by-ten-foot-wide lobster-trap hanukkiah because they were afraid it would provoke attacks and vandalism. We did not, but this year, after Shabbat Va-yera on October 29, there is an even greater sense of danger. But in our community across the country, a powerful sense of solidarity exists alongside that fear. At Temple Ahavat Achim, we invited the wider community to our musical Kabbalat Shabbat service the Friday after the shooting. The capacity of our sanctuary is 280, but roughly 400 people attended the service. While this solidarity is powerful and healing, tough questions remain. We want to express our Judaism, and we want to feel safe from hostility and violence. Those two desires are coming into conflict. How do we move forward?

As I said to the large crowd who joined us for that Kabbalat Shabbat, the name of the synagogue, Tree of Life, comes from a verse in Proverbs (3:18): “It is a tree of life for those who grasp onto it, and whoever holds onto it is happy.” A midrash connects the phrase, “those who grasp onto it” to a similar phrase in the Book of Exodus (4:4). At the burning bush, Moses expresses his fear that the people of Israel will not believe him or his message of liberation. In response, God turns Moses’s staff into a snake so terrifying that Moses flees before it. Then there is a test: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Put out your hand and grasp it by the tail.’” (By the tail!) Surely, Moses understands that there is no surer way to be bitten by a snake than to grab it by the tail. But he overcomes his fear: “He [Moses] put out his hand and seized it, and it became a rod in his hand.” The snake-turned-staff in Moses’s hand becomes the symbol of his power.

In this moment, I hope we do not just experience danger and a desire to flee from it. I hope we will also have courage to overcome fear, and reach out in faith. As we contemplate the lights of Hanukkah, and meditate on the miracle of the triumph of the few over the many, and the righteous over the wicked, may we be strengthened in courage and faith to overcome our fears, and create a more redeemed world.

Rabbi Steven Lewis is the spiritual leader of Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester.

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