by Rabbi Will Keller
I love the scene that unfolds when we light the Chanukah candles, especially with little kiddos around. I find children always have a fascination with this experience, they cannot contain their excitement, dancing and weaving between the legs of our guests and family as they try to get as close as humanly possible to the lighting of the Chanukiyot. The kids’ excited dances and the glitter of absolute joy in their eyes remind me that our children are in some ways the like the candles themselves.
My two “candles” are a little dangerous, especially if left alone. But their light is incredible.
It is not a perfect metaphor, but it led me to think about how we approach lighting the candles each night - where do we we light them? When? How long should the candles last? Most of the answers to these questions fit into the larger objective of publicizing the miracles of Chanukah - Pirsumei Nisa. This body of laws lends great wisdom when thinking about how to raise children who hopefully turn out to be Mensches.
According to Jewish law we must proudly show the candles to the world, while at the same time the law recognizes you must protect the candles from the elements (rain, wind, etc) to be able to continue displaying them. We may not combine the wicks of each candle to create one larger candle or bonfire. The candles need to be set apart by a set amount of space. So too, we want to show off our children’s brilliance, while recognizing they need a safe space to nurture what makes them each special. They need space to differentiate and the ability to recognize the light that they shine is different from everyone else’s.
There are two other examples of Pirsumei Nisa, publicizing the miraculous moments of Jewish triumph over oppression - drinking four cups of wine during the Passover seder and reading Megillat Esther on Purim.
The examples of when we are told to do Pirsumei Nisa, to publicize an event in Jewish history, remind me of three concentric circles of community. The passover wine is consumed within the sphere of immediate family and intimate friends. Traditionally, the megillah is read in synagogues within the sphere of congregations and the Chanukah candles are shown to the world. As adults, we each traverse these different spheres in our daily lives all the time but our children’s worlds are by design more limited. It is important to nurture our children’s growth and development and that means allowing them to navigate each of these spaces in their own ways, as difficult as that can be.
I remember the first time I noticed my daughter having a conversation with someone who she did not know. My instinct was to jump in and facilitate the conversation but for whatever reason, I hung back and was delighted to watch my daughter crack jokes, be polite, and ask thoughtful questions. My daughter was ready to move into more public spheres and for both of my children to be successful my wife and I need to follow their lead a bit.
For our children to recognize their own light they need our support, but they also need to be able to find their own footing and stand on their own.
Lighting the Chanukah candles can serve as a reminder that our little ones are precious and need our close nurturing while at the same time the model of Pirsumei Nisa can give us space and the courage we might need to encourage our children to go out and shine their light into the broader world.
May we all merit to see our children shine their unique light on the world.
Rabbi Will Keller is the Director of Jewish Life at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.