Shining the Light of Hanukkah

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, is the Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, where she also received her ordination. She also holds her MBA in Marketing Management from Baruch College, and helps bring those skills and expertise into the operational practices of rabbis and congregations throughout North America.

posted on December 22, 2006
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Short hours of sunlight.  Long nights of darkness.

In these, cold, almost-winter days of December, is can easily be that the sun has barely risen when we leave our homes and is already set when we leave our offices.  And, if you’ve had the experience I’ve had, you sometimes find yourself feeling like it is the middle of the night when, in reality, it is barely past 5 pm.  And, it is just at this time that Hanukkah arrives, when for eight nights, our primary mitzvah is to illuminate the darkness of night with the lights of our menorah.

Some 2000 years ago, the Rabbis of the Talmud invited us to focus on the lights and to spend precious moments in reflection of the light we bring into the world.  Answering the question, Mai Hanukkah – What is Hanukkah, the rabbis remind us that unlike any other lights we kindle during the year – Shabbat or other holidays – only on Hanukkah are the lights kindled for the sole purpose of noticing the light.  Not to read by, or to light our way in a dark room, but solely for reflecting on what it means to bring light into our world and how we can be a part of that process.  In the words of one of the traditional meditative readings that accompanies the blessings over the candles:  “Haneirot Hallalu – These lights we kindle for the miracles, wonders, triumphs and battles which You performed for our ancestors in those days in this season, through your holy priests.  And throughout the eight days of Hanukkah these lights are sanctified… V’ein lanu reshut l’hishtamesh ba’hem eileh lirotam bilvad – and we do not have the permission to use them except to look at them.

Yet, whenever it is that we return from our day and light our Hanukkah candles, there are so many other things to do – gifts to exchange, dinners to eat, work to be done, a household to run…. things that distract us from sitting and watching the burning flames of our Hanukkah lights.  As a result, although the lights of our menorah burn brightly each night, it is so easy to ignore or forget the light of the menorah and all that it has to share with us.

So, what is it we see when we look into the lights of the menorah?  What might have been if, after being victorious in their battle over assimilation, the Macabees had decided that since there was barely enough oil to last one day, they would not light the menorah at all?  Instead, in a demonstration of faith, courage and strength, they rededicated the Temple using the small flask of oil to light the menorah, kindling the sparks within the Jews in their own generation and in all future generations.  What an amazing thing it must have been, and is, to be able to pour our faith and yearnings into such a small vessel, and ultimately to shine the light of life into this world.

Each night’s candle will burn until all that is left is the small wick of flames desperately trying to continue to revive itself as it starts to burn low.  And, inevitably, sad as it may be, it will eventually burn out.  And, what will we do?  The next night, we will not only relight that candle, but we will add more light to the menorah, increasing the light shining from our homes.  And so, too, will we do so for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah.

We know all too well that the task of shining light into the world is as challenging today as it was for the Macabees in their time.  Lighting the Hanukkah menorah invites us to ignite the flames of our own souls, to find the spark that cannot be extinguished, that can burn not just for eight days, but for the entire year.  As the light of our menorah burns, our internal light must also be kindled in the fight against darkness of evil, assimilation, and indifference.  The menorah reminds us of the miracle that no matter how dark life may be, hope and faith can inspire a source of light deep within each of us.  And that that light of our soul reflects and refracts God’s illuminating presence reminding us of the words of Proverbs: “The light of God is the human soul.”   It is this light that can also lead our way and illumine our darkest path.  And it is this light that we can use to kindle other holy lights – the souls within others around us.

There is wonderful Hasidic story, told of a conversation between the rabbi and one particular member of his community.  The man once asked: “Rabbi, what is a Jew’s task in this world?”  The rabbi answered: “A Jew is a lamp-lighter on the streets of the world.  In olden days, there was a person in every town who would light the gas street lamps with a light he carried on the end of a long pole.  On the street corners, the lamps sat, ready to be lit.  A lamp-lighter has a pole with a flame supplied by the town.  He knows that the fire is not his own and he goes around lighting the lamps on his route.”  The man then asked: “But what if the lamp is in a desolate wilderness?” The rabbi responded: “Then, too, one must light it.  Let it be noted that there is a wilderness and let the wilderness be shamed by the light.”  Not satisfied, the man asked: “But what if the lamp is in the middle of the sea?” to which the rabbi responded: “Then one must take off one’s clothes, jump into the water, and light it there!”

“And that is the Jew’s mission?” asked the man.  The rabbi thought for a long moment and finally responded: “Yes, that is a Jew’s calling.”  The man continues – “But rabbi, I see no lamps.”  The rabbi responds: “That is because you are not yet a lamp-lighter.”  So, the man inquires: “How does one become a lamplighter?” The rabbi’s answer this time? “One must begin with oneself, cleansing oneself, becoming more refined, then one is able to see the other as a source of light, waiting to be ignited.  When, heaven forbid, one is crude, then one sees but crudeness; but, when one is noble, one sees nobility.”

This Hanukkah, each of us has an opportunity – a chance to really see the lights of our menorah.  Turn off the lights in the room and watch the lights.  Notice the flickering of the lights, the combination of colors, and even the dance of the flames and wicks.  Ask yourself, what is the light of human souls that are with me and are on the routes that I take every day of my life?  Who are the people in my home, in my workplace, in the stores that I frequent, in the places that I go, and in the world?  Look for them and see nobility.  See their light that illuminates your own and that you can help light.  And, may we turn the dance of the flames and wicks into a human dance of connection and meaning that ultimately stirs our own soul out of darkness and towards the light of God.

Shabbat shalom and Happy Hanukkah!