– Rabbi Will KellerI love the scene that unfolds when we light the Hanukkah candles, especially with young children around. I find that 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 possible to the lighting of the hanukkiyot (menorahs). The kids’ excited dances and the glitter of absolute joy in their eyes remind me that our children are in some ways 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 Hanukkah — pirsumei nisa. Interestingly, this body of law lends great wisdom to thinking about how to raise children to become mensches.
According to Jewish law, we must proudly show the Hanukkah candles to the world. At the same time, the law recognizes that we must protect the candles from the elements (rain, wind, etc.) in order to be able to continue displaying them. The candles need to be separated by a set amount of space, and we may not combine wicks to create a larger candle or bonfire. So too, we want to show off our children’s brilliance, while recognizing they need a safe space to nurture what makes each of them special. They need space to differentiate and the ability to recognize that the light they shine is different from everyone else’s.
In addition to Hanukkah, there are two other holidays when we practice pirsumei nisa, publicizing the miraculous moments of Jewish triumph over oppression. We do this on Passover by drinking four cups of wine during the seder, and on Purim by reading Megillat Esther.
These examples of pirsumei nisa 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 synagogue, within the sphere of a congregation. And the Hanukkah candles are shown to the world. As adults, we 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, which 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 she didn’t know. My instinct was to jump in and facilitate the conversation, but for whatever reason, I hung back and was delighted to watch her 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 footing and stand on their own. Lighting the Hanukkah 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 the space and 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 do just that.
Rabbi Will Keller is the director of Jewish life at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. He wrote this article originally for JKidPhilly.