By Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen
Chanukah, the festival of Lights, recalls the victory — more than 2100 years ago — of a militarily weak but spiritually strong Jewish people over the mighty forces of a ruthless enemy that had overrun the Holy Land and threatened to engulf the land and its people in darkness.
The miraculous victory — culminating with the dedication of the sanctuary in Jerusalem and the rekindling of the menorah that had been desecrated and extinguished by the enemy — has been celebrated annually ever since during these eight days of Chanukah, especially by lighting the Chanukah menorah, also as a symbol and message of the triumph of freedom over oppression, of spirit over matter, of light over darkness.
It is a timely and reassuring message, for the forces of darkness are ever present. Moreover, the danger does not come exclusively from outside; it often lurks close to home, in the form of insidious erosion of time-honored values and principles that are at the foundation of any decent human society. Needless to say, darkness is not chased away by brooms and sticks, but by illumination. Our sages said, “A little light expels a lot of darkness.”
The Chanukah lights remind us in a most obvious way that illumination begins at home, within oneself and one’s family. How? By increasing and intensifying the light of Torah and mitzvot in the everyday experience, just as the Chanukah lights are kindled in growing numbers from day to day.
But though it begins at home, it does not stop there. Such is the nature of light that when one kindles a light for one’s own benefit, it also benefits all who are in the vicinity. Indeed, the Chanukah lights are expressly meant to illuminate the “outside,” symbolically alluding to the duty to bring light also to those who, for one reason or another, still walk in darkness.
What is true of the individual is true of a nation, especially this great United States, united under G-d, and generously blessed by G-d with material as well as spiritual riches. It is surely the duty and privilege of our great nation to promote all the forces of light, both at home and abroad, and in a steadily growing measure.
Let us pray that the message of the Chanukah lights will illuminate the everyday life of everyone personally, and of the society at large, for a brighter life in every respect, both materially and spiritually.
Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen is rabbi of Chabad of Owings Mills.