96. A Different Kind of Hanukkah Blessing

96. A Different Kind of Hanukkah Blessing

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas!

A Different Kind of Hanukkah Blessing

The darkness of the whole world cannot swallow the glowing of a candle.

~Robert Altinger

“So tell me, can I light the first candle soon?” asked May, the branch manager of my local bank. She pointed to an electric menorah on a table beside a Christmas tree. All the “candles” were in place, but none were lit. Yet.

May and I have known each other for years, ever since our now grown-up kids played baseball together. Season after season, she and I sat together on the sidelines, dispensing snacks, water and praise to the entire team, cheering their victories and lamenting their losses. May’s a very kind, as well as a competent person, with a sunny disposition and a big heart. She also is Catholic. And I am one of her Jewish customers.

It was a Friday morning in mid-December. The holiday of Hanukkah would begin at sundown, when the first candle would be lit. Which is why I told May, no, she couldn’t flip the switch on the bank’s menorah today because they closed at 3:00 in the afternoon. Two more candles would be lit in Jewish homes over the weekend, so during banking hours on Monday, she should light…

“Three candles? Am I right?” she asked. Clearly, she wanted to do it correctly.

I nodded yes, and explained that usually candles are placed in the menorah from right to left, and lit from left to right, although it isn’t mandatory. But I didn’t say that Hanukkah candles don’t burn in Jewish homes during the day, and that lighting them when she came to work in the morning, which is what she — and countless other well-intentioned managers and merchants — wanted to do, was basically incorrect. Silently, I thought about the difficulties we all face at times, when we want to do the right thing for other people, but don’t know how to do it. Here was May, a Christian, trying to honor my religion in a respectful way. Although I deeply appreciated her efforts, silently, I thought if secular businesses insist on lighting menorahs, maybe they should just ignite all eight candles at once, and let it go at that. But the whole thing reminded me of the childhood puzzle game: What’s wrong with this picture?

Also, because I knew that May’s concerns were heartfelt and sincere, I didn’t say that personally I don’t like seeing religious objects or symbols displayed in public places. In the same way that many Christians think that the commercialization of Christmas profanes it, I agree with Jews who believe that lighting menorahs in non-Jewish settings is inappropriate. The menorah is a key religious symbol of Judaism; it’s not the Jewish equivalent of a Christmas tree.

Christmas trees are part of the Christmas holiday, but they are not essential to it. Kindling the lights of the menorah, however, is a sacred act, central to the celebration of Hanukkah. Jews, in fact, are required to do so, and we say: “We praise you, Eternal One, Source of the Universe, who teaches us holiness with your Mitzvot, and commands us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.”

May and I talked briefly about the story of Hanukkah, which commemorates the victory of the Maccabees, who crushed the mighty armies of King Antiochus Epiphanes, in 165 B.C.E. Led by Judah Maccabee, the Jews revolted against Antiochus’ campaign to destroy their faith by banning the study of Torah, demanding that Jews worship idols, and deliberately desecrating their Temple by sacrificing pigs on the altar.

After the Temple was cleansed and repaired, oil was collected and lit in candelabras. Part of the story of Hanukkah describes the “miracle of the oil which lasted eight days instead of one,” but the primary message focuses on resisting assimilation into the mainstream, no matter how attractive and tantalizing it may be. The word, “Hanukkah,” means rededication. Lighting the oil first occurred on the eve of the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, and it has been observed at that time ever since.

“Celebrate and rejoice with mirth and gladness,” said Judah Maccabee.

But there was something else.

“By the way, we don’t just light candles,” I told May. She looked at me quizzically.

“We recite a blessing in Hebrew,” I explained. “It’s fundamental in Judaism to do an act, and say a blessing. In that order.”

Her shoulders slumped. Was she sorry she had started this discussion? “But I can’t recite a Hebrew blessing,” she replied.

I agreed. But we both knew that saying nothing was not the answer.

“Maybe you can recite something, May,” I said. “Some sort of universal prayer — for peace, good health, and love.”

She smiled. “Of course, I can,” she said.

I smiled back and thought, that sounds good to me.

~Susan J. Gordon

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