Rava inquired: Where the choice is between kindling a Chanukah light and sanctification of Shabbat by blessing the wine, what is the law? Is sanctification of Shabbat preferable since it is a frequent obligation (while kindling the Chanukah lights is only an annual event) Or perhaps kindling the Chanukah light is preferable since its purpose is publicizing the miracle that God wrought for the Jewish people? After Rava asked this question, he himself resolved it: Kindling the Hanukkah light is preferable, since its purpose is publicizing the miracle. – Shabbat 23b
There is a long discussion of lighting the Chanukah candles in Tractate Shabbat of the Talmud: how to do it, what kind of lights are best, and so on. One principle informs all those discussions: Pirsumei nisa, “Publicize the miracle.”
This calls to my mind another line from Pirkei Avot:
Hillel used to say, “…the shy cannot learn…” Pirkei Avot, 2:6
Judaism is not a shy religion. Our holiest text, the Torah, is a “warts and all” picture of a nation sprung from a breathtakingly dysfunctional family. The Talmud also transmits minority opinions, dissenting opinions, unflattering stories, and some downright unattractive details; we keep it all because sanitizing it would be less than the truth.
Rabbi Steven Leder, my homiletics teacher in rabbinical school, taught me that there are two rules for writing a hesped, that uniquely Jewish form of the funeral eulogy. The first rule is: Tell the truth. If the departed was in fact a workaholic with a mean streak, don’t say that he was a sweetie-pie. Put a tactful a spin on it, say that his passion for business sometimes overrode his better instincts, be sure to emphasize any good qualities he had, but tell the truth. (The second rule? Help them cry. Help the mourners begin the inevitable process of mourning.)
“Telling it like it is” is a grand old Jewish tradition. It sometimes runs counter to the desire to fit in and please, to our need to be loved and our fear of rejection. It can be embarrassing, it can be costly, it can be a real pain in the neck, but the only lies a good Jew should tell (or listen to) are the white lies of kindness, things like telling every bride that she’s beautiful on her wedding day.
There are things about the Chanukah story that are upsetting to anyone who looks farther than the children’s version. It was not just a war against the Greeks, it was a brother-against-brother Jewish civil war. The real miracle of Chanukah is that what emerged from it was not a ayatollah state of fundamentalists, but a Judaism that incorporated some of the best of Hellenist culture and was strong and flexible enough to survive the disasters of the Roman wars.
Tonight, as we light the second candle, may we publicize the miracle, may we remind ourselves not to be shy in seeking and telling the truth.
These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; do not plot evil against your neighbor, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this,” declares the Eternal. –Zachariah 8:16-17