Moments before the ceremonial lighting of the National Menorah, the collective attention of hundreds gathered on the Ellipse south of the White House yesterday veered upward from the U.S. Army Band performing on stage to the skies. President Bush's helicopter was preparing to land on the nearby South Lawn.
"Now was that divine providence or what?" said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch, as the helicopter continued to rumble in the background.
The president's return from spending Thanksgiving weekend at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., was a fitting punctuation mark: The ceremony featured repeated allusions to the nation's war on terrorism and several comments praising the president, who is scheduled to light another menorah inside the White House this week.
"It's so important, in a time when darkness and evil lurk, that forces of justice and light and piety prevail," said Shemtov, master of ceremonies for yesterday's event.
The menorah is a symbol of events that happened more than 2,000 years ago after the Jewish Maccabean army defeated Syrian enemies for the right to practice their religion. According to Jewish tradition, when the Jews were re-consecrating their temple in Jerusalem after their victory, a one-day supply of purified oil miraculously burned for eight days. Thus, eight candles in the menorah.
Several speakers during the late-afternoon ceremony made the historical leap from the Maccabean war to the present war.
"Jews are under attack again," said Dov S. Zakheim, a Pentagon undersecretary of defense and one of the event's featured speakers. " . . . Why is it we are such targets? Because we stand for religious freedom."
Zakheim was preceded by Jay P. Lefkowitz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, whose remarks also drew a line from Jewish history to current events.
"This is the message of Hanukah," Lefkowitz said. "Not to be deterred. No terror in the world can deter us from our mission."
The speakers lighted the center candle of the menorah, as well as three of the eight branches of the candelabrum, to mark the third night of Hanukah. The flames fluttered in a brisk wind to mark the ceremonial start of what's known as the festival of lights.
Hundreds of spectators tried to keep warm during the hour-long ceremony. Allison Green and her two children, ages 3 and 6, viewed the ceremony from folding chairs in front of the stage. The 6-year-old, Yael, succinctly noted the difference between the National Menorah and the one that stands in the Green family home in Potomac: "It's bigger."
The National Menorah stands about 30 feet tall -- the maximum height allowed by Jewish law, Shemtov said.
"The rabbis ruled that if it's over 30 feet tall, it's too difficult to see," Shemtov said.
Though its candles were lighted by oil yesterday, electric bulbs will replace the flames throughout this week.
The ceremony marked the 24th annual lighting of the National Menorah, which each year has been organized by Lubavitch, a Jewish outreach group that sponsors thousands of other public menorah lightings around the globe.