The eighth day of Chanukah is known as Zot Chanukkat, ‘this is the dedication,’ following the words with which the Torah sums up the offerings brought for the inauguration of the altar. This leads to the beautiful verse describing how, as he enters the holy space of the Tent of Meeting, Moses overhears God’s voice.
Perhaps that’s how poets and composers feel in the moment of inspiration: that something sacred, infinite and indefinable is articulated in the universe which they try to capture or hint at in music and words.
Where is our tent of meeting, our sacred space in this Covid-troubled world?
I had taught the well-known passage from Shulchan Aruch many times before I realised that this was exactly the question it intended to answer:
You place the Chanukah candles at the threshold of your home, facing the public highway. [If you can’t do that] you put them in the window overlooking the main road. In times of danger, you set them on your table and that’s sufficient.
This instruction can be taken as referring not just to Chanukah but to religious life as a whole.
‘Times of danger’ are periods of religious persecution. But we too are living amidst danger, albeit of a different kind. Public highways carry risks, as do even our places of worship for those who need to shelter for themselves or their nearest and dearest.
As a result, spiritual life has [partly] moved from synagogue to home, from public to private, from what others lead for us to what we do for ourselves. Our kitchen table, back window, favourite plant has become our Tent of Meeting:
– I said the memorial prayers at home for the first time. Behind me were pictures of my beloved parents; it all made more sense.
– I pray in my garden, with the trees.
– I lit my Chanukiah and felt its light had been burning in my heart all these months.
We’ve overheard life’s sacred speech in new ways, if only for rare moments. But that can suffice, as travellers navigating by the stars need to recognise only a few to find direction in the darkness. In these difficult times we need light on our home table.
But the high road matters too. Across the world our societies urgently require light in the public domain. Yesterday I took the boxes collected in our neighbourhood to the food bank in Colindale. I’ve been several times; the difference now is that the queue was three times longer. Jonathan Freedland wrote about the priest who wept as he related how children in the places where he took food parcels were so hungry they tore them open before he could properly hand them over. Those children and those tears, are also God speaking, crying to be heard.
When asked about Chanukah, I often say it’s the Jewish festival of light. But what the word actually means is ‘dedication,’ rededication to listening to God’s voice and to seeking and sharing whatever light we can, both in our hearts and in the public spaces of our society.