Hot Air & Chanukah

Albuquerque hosts the largest hot air balloon festival in the world, so it’s no surprise that my home town can also claim the world’s greatest hot air balloon Chanukah menorah. According to the local Chabad, it’s . . .

The Largest Menorah Ever! Made from hot air balloons, this Menorah will be seen for miles. This unforgettable Chanukah event will be remembered as the largest Menorah in history. (menorahglow.com)

We’re talking about seven huge balloons rising up this Sunday evening (Dec. 17), all aglow, marking the sixth night of Chanukah plus one shammash.

Sounds fun, but what about such a public display of religion? I’m not questioning this display as an American who favors separation of church and state, because I believe the current notion of separation is far too extreme. But I’m raising the issue as a Jew. We’re not supposed to show off or seek attention for our religious practice, which is normally centered at home or within our own communal structures. So what’s with this Chanukah menorah that “will be seen for miles”?

Well, it turns out that one purpose of the Chanukah lights is to “popularize the miracle” (Rambam, Hilchot Chanukah 4:12). They’re meant to be on display to proclaim the miracle of God’s intervention in the days of the Maccabees. Therefore, the Talmud states, “The mitzvah of the Menorah [of Chanukah] is to place it at the door of one’s home, but in time of danger one may put it on his table” (Shabbat 21b). As Jews, we kindle the lights to display the light of God amidst our non-Jewish neighbors. For Messianic Jews, this light hints at the true Light, which “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

So, yes, Jewish practice is centered on family and the extended family of the local congregation, but it has a public aspect as well. The daily Shema hints at this aspect. Its first paragraph begins with the command to love God—the verb is singular in the Hebrew—with one’s whole heart and soul and might, then instructs us to speak of God’s words within family and community and wherever we go, and concludes, “You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:9). The gate in ancient times was the place of authority, where the elders gathered, but it was also, as today, the place of connection between the inside and the outside. What we write on the gates isn’t just a private, personal religious matter, but a public declaration.

Chanukah reminds us that the personal, private religious dimension is always vital, but never the whole story. In our day, there’s an idea afoot of religion as so personal and subjective that you shouldn’t say anything about it in public at all. You can believe what you want, but if you say much about it in public, you’re probably full of hot air, according to this view. That’s not the idea you get from Scripture, though. It’s good, and necessary sometimes, to make a public statement—despite the hot air of posturing and politicizing that’s often associated with public religion. Such statements remind us that God the Creator and Sustainer of all things remains a force to be reckoned with in the 21st century.

As public statements go, hot air balloons might be a bit overblown, but what better declaration than the message of Chanukah? It’s all about a God who “delivered the strong into the hands of the weak . . . the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the arrogant into the hands of those who were engaged in the study of [his] Torah” (Koren Siddur). A relevant reminder for today, public as well as private.

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