There was a little 4 year old in the neighborhood who announced that he didn’t like his home any more. His mother told him off-handedly he could pack up his things and leave. (Don’t gasp!) The boy gathered some clothes, his blanket and favorite toy, and went out of the house. Later, a neighbor noticed the boy walking up and down the edge of the street carrying his mother’s suitcase and asked him, “Where are you going?” “I’m running away from home,” the boy declared. “Well, you will not get very far staying only on this side of the street.” “Yes,” the boy said, “but I’m not allowed to cross the street!”
Habits taught early make a world of difference.
I am not sure where or when it exactly happens, but the habits of Jewish living often become novel customs relegated to nostalgia. When pressed to answer, many families today will sigh with longing to light Shabbat candles or bemoan the difficulty in remembering the blessings of Kiddush. Hanukkah candles have become a reminder of a time when the kids were around. Holidays are for the children. Even young adults are leading such busy lives that they may not get a chance to light the Hanukiyah each night. The challenges of time and an ever-growing list of responsibilities and commitments push these time-honored rituals to the shelf, waiting to be embraced only for occasional celebration.
As the colder weather of winter is upon us, we more readily recognize where nostalgia is nestled up in the comfort of our homes, beneath blankets on the sofa, and flickering in the fireplace. Hanukkah beckons us out of our living rooms and to the windows peering out into the world. It is only at the intersection of the public and private space that the message of Hanukkah can be expressed and felt. Shaking us from ritual nostalgia, this simple act reminds us how powerful sacred habits can be. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, had it best when he taught:
A container is defined by its contents. A pitcher of water is water. A crate of apples is apples. A house, too, is defined by what it contains. Fill your house with books of Torah and your house becomes Torah. Place Tzedakah boxes in the kitchen, the library, the bedroom, and your house becomes a wellspring of charity. Bring those in need of a warm home to your table, and your house becomes a lamp in the darkness.
Placing candles in the window is a bold statement that what is happening in the home isn’t nostalgia alone. It affirms that there are habits worth developing that will last far beyond the pressures of today and the tyranny of now.
When daily news reports point to people responding to the changing economy with a “down-sizing,” it means people are becoming more considerate with spending their time and resources. This kind of planning can reach into our spiritual lives as well. Where today we program our lives, often down to the hour, and where each day presents a sophisticated itinerary that often leaves everyone exhausted as the weekend nears, I would like to suggest that planning for ritual in the home is as important as any of the other busy and worthwhile activities you take on.
If you’ve lit the Hanukkah candles this week, continue to light the Shabbat candles tomorrow night. Try it again next week and the following week. Let the habits of Jewish life radiate in your home and glow brightly in your heart.