My favorite Hanukkah song reminds us, “Don’t let the lights go out, they’ve lasted for so many years.” This message is profound, referring to way more than the Chanukah candles that we light for eight days each year. Gathering around the Hanukkiah with family and close friends, chanting the blessings together, singing Chanukah songs, eating latkes and sovganiot (donuts), exchanging gifts or gelt (money), builds memories—perpetuating our tradition and reinforcing the importance of it for our children.
In fact, the message of those words goes deeper even than lighting the Shabbat candles every Friday night at sunset. Gathering around the Shabbat table as a family, participating in sacred family time, whether it be eating dinner together, listening to a story passed down through the ages, looking at family photographs, eating challah and drinking grape juice or simply having ice-cream together after dinner, sanctifies Shabbat. It shows our family a commitment to Jewish values and traditions. We reinforce our commitment to the continuation of our heritage, paying tribute to our ancestors and paving the way for future generations.
When we kindle the memorial candle on the anniversary of the passing of a loved one and remember the impact that ancestor had on us, we are honoring a life, a love and a message. We show our children that life has value, that every individual can teach us something and that the past matters. By remembering the lives of those who came before us, we model honor and respect. We reinforce our tradition of caring for one another at every stage of life and pay tribute to the impact of education and experience.
When our children witness us lighting any of these candles and embracing tradition, we are perpetuating a future for the Jewish religion and culture. We are reinforcing that we care, that the past matters, that the future is vital and that it falls upon us to share the “light.” We can never underestimate the importance of leaving the world a better place than we found it, of doing mitzvot and improving something, somewhere along the way. The message of the song is powerful: we are charged with carrying our traditions forward, with ensuring that our children and those who come after us “don’t let the lights go out!”
Sue Penn is the mother of three, Education Director at University Synagogue, president of Jewish Reconstructionist Educators of North America and a member of the Jewish Educators Assembly.