Many of us are, I believe, familiar with the picture from the 1930s of the Chanukah Menorah in the foreground and, through the window, the flag of Nazi Germany, a picture so absurd, so stark, so dramatic you would think it was a forgery, but it is quite real. It was a photograph shot by Rachel Posner, wife of Rabbi Akiva Posner, in Kiel Germany in 1932. On the back of the photograph, Rachel wrote: “Chanukah 5692 (1932). “Death to Judah” So the flag says. “Judah will live forever” so the light answers. The Posners, their children, and many of his congregants fled to the land of Israel in 1933, and the family uses the menorah to this day.
For years I have seen that image circulate right around now, as a reminder, among other things, of the Jewish obligation to publicize the miracle. The lights of Chanukah are, as we know, meant to be lit and displayed publicly, so that all those passing by the house will be reminded of the light of the holiday, and by extension, reminded of the piety of our ancestors who sought to preserve Jewish identity and peoplehood against the forces that would extinguish both. Yes, we can have a nuanced conversation about who the Hasmoneans—Mattathias and Judah Maccabee and the rest—really were, what kind of piety they were espousing, and whether we’ve lost the plot on what Chanukah really is, as we delight in full shelves of schlock at Target, and everyone seems to want a piece of the action. And honestly, what could be more Jewish than such a debate? But there is another that I am sure is weighing on many people’s minds.
You see, for many of us, since October 7th we have watched antisemitism spike, even compared to the years since 2016. When last year in November there might have been sixty or so incidents nationwide, we have seen upwards of three hundred in the last two months. Even in the midst of our heartache—for Israelis, for Gazans—because who among us would deny the bitter suffering of people in Gaza?, we have watched those who should be our allies—those with whom we have stood shoulder to shoulder with on issues of bigotry and the affirmation of the human rights of all—vandalize Jewish schools and institutions, protest at Jewish-owned restaurants, like Goldie last weekend, block, threaten and harass Jewish students at universities such that at Columbia, one student declared that antisemitism is the new normal. And that speaks to the larger events that make the news. I have not forgotten about the friendships and relationships that have been diminished in this moment. I heard about one of our religious school children who had a Muslim playmate and friend…until October 7th. Now the mom does not return any calls or texts, and the child is left wondering what he did wrong. That ‘socialism of fools’ as Bernard Henri-Levi calls it, seems all the more present, and we wonder, as Senator Chuck Shumer said in a speech on the Senate floor last week, whether or not we are once again, alone?
How can we, in such situations, put the Chanukiah out in our windows? Do we allow the light of Chanukah to shine in public, or do we hide it away out of fear of the hostility we have seen grow? An argument could be made—and the sources might agree-that in times of danger or difficulty it is better to not put the lights in public, to hide them–and ourselves. After all, we are supposed to live by the mitzvot—live, and not die by them.
There is a strong argument to be made to protect ourselves in this profoundly liminal, grief-filled moment. I profoundly appreciate that desire to duck for cover, to turn inward, to echo Senator Schumer’s remark that we are, once again, alone. But if I may, if Rachel Posner was able to put the menorah in the window in the face of Nazi Germany, how can we, how dare we, do any less?
Because the Menorah does not just publicize the miracle of what happened bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, at this season in year’s past. The Menorah, like the Mezuzah, acts as a beacon of safety for our fellow Jews, a signal that they—that we—are seen and loved. And we are not alone. There are so many out there who are our friends and allies, who want us to live in security and safety. In fact, we are joined by some tonight, non-Jewish clergy, some of their congregants, and local leaders, who stand tonight with us to help us light our lights. And they reflect so many more friends that we have as a community. To be sure, in my conversations with them, they ask hard questions, and I would expect nothing less, and even with that, they offer their support. The light in the window then also becomes an opportunity to signal to the world not only our defiance in the face of hostility, but our assertion that we belong in this community, and our belief in this community that we can live together in peace, even if we do not agree. I ask us to put that light in the window, to publicize the mitzvah, and invite our friends—Jewish and non-Jewish–to join with us in celebrating the holiday, in lighting the light in a very dark time in our world.
The darkness comes, whether it is the early sunsets of the winter months, or the darkness of poverty, war, and bigotry that stubbornly persists in our world. So, it is incumbent upon us to shine our light to drive out the darkness, to publicize the miracle of what happened then, and what may yet happen in our day. To say to the world, Judah—our people and our ideals and values—will live forever. May it be so. Amen.