As I was driving home last night after a quick trip to Walgreens, I passed by several gentile homes with decorative displays of lights all around the exterior of their homes, along with well-lit Christmas trees displayed prominently in a central window.
A bit further on my return trip, I passed by our Jewish neighbors and saw their Chanukiot still burning in a front window on display for all to see.
Then an idea hit me.
Akin to many of their religious rituals and beliefs, are the Christmas lights meant to be another Christian attempt to replace/outdo our own religious practice of lighting the Chanukiah in a window, or back in the day, on a doorstep?
I was fascinated to discover that the original "minhag" for these lights was to have candles decorating Christmas trees in upper class homes. Of course, this was before electricity, but nevertheless, the parallel imagery struck me.
Our lights serve to publicize the Chanukah miracle, the miraculous victory of the Chashmona'im and the miracle of the oil remaining lit for 8 days and nights in the Menorah of the Beis Hamikdash. By lighting our Chanukiot, we are adding a bit of spiritual light to the darkness of the general world... but are they trying to copy us?
In a way, this idea seems quite strange. Instead of darkness trying to swallow our Chanukah lights, as has been the image found in many mussar schmoozes, there are now many, many more lights of all different kinds out there that are usually more grandiose, public, and eye-catching than our Chanukiot sitting on the windowsill.
And yet, that seems to be precisely the point.
For all the elaborate set ups, intricate details, pretty colors and high electric bills, there is no substance or soul to the practice of setting up strings of lights on a tree or on the outside of one's home. It's nice, it gives the family something to do together, it's tradition... but is there any depth or spirituality to it?
My answer is no.
Whereas the gentile world puts up their holiday lights for fun, for sport, or for ego inflation, we light the Chanukiah and recite blessings that acknowledge the past events and miracles that demonstrate our continued sense of gratitude to HaShem, as well as the continuity and meaning of the Maccabee's struggle against the assimilation and Hellenization of the Greek culture and values.
We don't need an ostentatious display that has a "wow" factor to achieve our purpose. Sometimes simplicity is elegance in and of itself. By lighting the Chanukiah, we connect back to our forefathers before us, going all the way back to the original establishment of the holiday following the re-dedication of the Beis Hamikdash and our renewed spiritual connection, relationship and service of HaShem.
The other lights that appear during this time of year are nothing more than distractions, background "noise" that attracts the eye but gives no substance in return.
In Haneiros Hallalu, we say that the Chanukah lights are not to be benefited from, but only to be looked upon. In doing so, we can reflect on their origin, think back to the Menorah in the Beis Hamikdash, and realize how much we've lost in its absence. However, we can also contemplate what we need to do to merit its return. We can open our minds to spiritual revitalization that the Maccabees spear-headed, and tap into the spiritual energy that permeates this time of year. Just as we say in Al Hanissim, we recognize the past events and miracles, right along their continued residual energy that reappears every year when the cycle of Jewish holidays turns once again and we arrive at this point in time
I hope we can all take the time to stop whatever we're doing and gaze at the Chanukah lights and take the time to think to ourselves about our spiritual well-being and what we can do to improve it. How can we take our own internal light, the pintele Yid, and cultivate it to become a brilliant flame that will light up our spiritual light, and even provide light for others whose internal sparks may be dim or partially smothered by spiritually harmful influences.
Just as Chazal mention that a fire can be shared without diminishing its original source, may we all merit to share our own spirituality, the Torah we've learned, and our yearning for a closer relationship and service to HaShem. By spreading the light, may we reach an illumination great enough to enlighten the world at large, and bring the ultimate source of light back to Earth with the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash, bimheira biyameinu.