One of the defining elements of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah is visibility in performing the main ritual of the holiday. The teachings on lighting the menorah say that the ideal placement is just inside the vestibule or in the window — places where it can be seen by people passing by on the street.
This requirement for visibility is directly related to the raison d’être for the holiday. The Macabees fought the Greeks to regain sovereignty in an era when the Greek rulers were forcing assimilation. The Greek king prohibited the Jews from practicing their religious rituals, forcing the the Jews to gather in secret. It is only fitting that as part of the celebration of the victory, we perform the central ritual of the holiday in full view of the public. To this end, many areas with large Jewish populations have public menorah lightings.
The vast majority of holiday rituals in Judaism and other religions I’ve learned about are performed in the sanctity of the home or the house of worship (synagogue, church, mosque), places that are private and safe. (Or, at least where we have an expectation of safety.)
(The Jewish holiday of Sukkot is another notable instance where we perform the central ritual outside of the home.)
Chanukah is unique in that when we light the menorah we are both in the safe space of home and on full view to the outside world. It is as if we are inviting the outside world into our space.
The Courage to Be Seen
This is something that hit me in a new way this year. It is the first Chanukah where I’ve had the opportunity to light the menorah in a window that is visible to the passers-by on the street.
When I was growing up, my parents’ house didn’t have a suitable windowsill for the menorah. The apartments I’ve lived in in NYC have all been on high floors, so lighting in the window wouldn’t be visible to people on the street.
I’m currently staying in a client’s apartment in the middle of Greenwich Village. The second-floor apartment is high enough off the ground that people on the street can’t see into the apartment, but they can see me when I’m standing at the window.
At least, I think they can, and that perception is enough for my nervous system.
As I stood at the window to light my candles, I noticed a few people walking past. I noticed a tightening in my stomach and quickening of my breath. A brief thought entered my mind, wondering if it was safe to keep the menorah in the window.
I felt exposed and vulnerable, even in the city with the largest Jewish population outside of Israel. Anti-semitism is on the rise, both in New York City and beyond.
Maybe I should move the menorah. Maybe I should light the candles later, when fewer people are around to notice.
I did neither. I by the window and said the blessings, then lit the candles, sharing my light with the outside world.
Visibility: Standing in Your Values
This is what it means to be visible: to stand in your values, to be seen for who you are.
This tension between visibility and vulnerability isn’t unique to Chanukah; it’s endemic to human nature.
The irony of visibility is that it is both our greatest desire and our greatest fear. One of our core needs as humans is to be seen for who we are, to be visible. This is a pre-requisite for deeper connection and trust. But visibility is often one of our greatest fears, because putting yourself on display is a vulnerable act. It exposes you to threats and harm — whether real or imagined.
The lesson of Chanukah extends beyond the candles: to take a stand for our values requires that we navigate the fear of visibility and allow ourselves to be seen in our light.