Light the Wick

Chanukah raises many questions: from, “What did you get me?” to, “How do we relate to the dominant culture — in ancient times and today?” Among the most important spiritual inquiries during this Festival of Lights is the meaning of the lights themselves.
December 8, 2009

Chanukah raises many questions: from, “What did you get me?” to, “How do we relate to the dominant culture — in ancient times and today?” Among the most important spiritual inquiries during this Festival of Lights is the meaning of the lights themselves. The rabbis name “publicizing the miracle” as one main purpose. Hence, we put our chanukiyot in doorways and windows that face the street. According to tradition, one should not work by the light of Chanukah candles. The lights are meant to inspire awe, not efficiency. The mitzvah is to enjoy their beauty, rather than their utility.

Gazing at the Chanukah lights on a dark winter night, I notice both their smallness and their splendor — not unlike the Jewish people. Not unlike the band of Maccabees who “in those days at this time” fought against all odds, that we might be here now. Not unlike the seemingly insufficient vial of oil that lit up the rededicated Temple.

Light is never just light. It carries with it connotations of clarity, warmth, insight and nurturance. It is the end of the tunnel, the banisher of the benighted, the genesis of the world. “Torah Orah” — the instruction of God is light and enlightenment. Therefore and first, God said, “Let there be light.”

Light captured in the form of a lamp or a flame on the altar represents an evolutionary watershed: the domestication of fire. This advancement also conveys a spiritual message: human beings can partner with God in bringing light to the world.

The chanukiyah draws and expands on a prior source of light: the seven-branched menorah that was lit in the Tabernacle and then the Temple (Exodus 25:31-40 and 37:17-24; Leviticus 24:1-4). Carved from pure gold and lit with pure, pressed olive oil, it burned continually, from just before sundown until the next morning. The branches of the candelabrum were connected to the base through a central shaft. In our day, the menorah has become a symbol of the State of Israel.

The details have spiritual significance. Why olive oil? Jeremiah compares the Jewish people to an olive tree, and the rabbis elaborate: just as the olive provides light through oil, the Jewish people provide light through Torah (Jeremiah 11:16, Exodus Rabbah 36:1-3). And why must the oil be pressed? Like olives, Jews, too, can release the best of what is in us when pressed.

For mystics, oil symbolizes streaming, infinite abundance from God above. The kabbalistic system of sefirot (emanations) maps out three upper and seven lower essential qualities and expressions of the Divine. The branches of the menorah are understood to carry the light of the seven lower, more accessible attributes. The central shaft, according to the 13th century kabbalist Asher Ben David and his followers, represents tiferet (glory or beauty), which is also called the “middle line,” since its center spot in the configuration of the sefirot reflects its role as mediator and bridge between emanations.

The menorah “passed the torch” to the chanukiyah, which continues to promote abundance, light and oil, in all their meanings. But there are also vital discontinuities. Unlike the menorah, the chanukiyah is lit only at nightfall because, from the mystical perspective, its light shines in the darkest hour of deepest exile. Chanukah lights represent hope and faith against all odds.

The number of candles lit for Chanukah is eight, rather than seven. The seven sefirot are still in play, but they are surpassed. In Jewish numerology, seven signifies a complete cycle. Eight goes beyond creation and completion to infinity. A classic example is brit milah (circumcision). Days one through seven correspond to the physical world (the natural body), while day eight represents the metaphysical world (the perfected body; supernatural spirit and covenant).

Thus, Chanukah candles don’t just emit lumens. They go beyond recalling, recreating or even rededicating the light from the Temple and the Tabernacle before it. On Chanukah, the candelabrum burns not only “continually,” but also miraculously. Chanukah lamps or candles shed and spread infinite, divine light. They draw on the supernal light of Genesis (1:3-5, 14-19), the light that is sown for the righteous (Psalms 97:11), the light of upper, seemingly distant, sefirot.

Most Jewish holidays begin under the light of the full moon. Even Purim, the other “minor historical festival,” takes place in the middle of the Jewish month, when the moon is full. Shavuot is an exception because it occurs seven weeks after Passover; nevertheless, the moon can be seen in the night sky.

The Festival of Lights occurs against a backdrop of both lunar and solar darkness. Early in the the holiday, the moon is not visible. And Chanukah generally falls on or near winter solstice, the day with the fewest hours of sun.

In utter darkness, it’s tempting to give up or wait passively for a change. Yet, as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav reminds us, it is precisely in the pitch black that you can see even the tiniest point of light. The Maccabees didn’t allow dim chances to diminish their commitment to the light of Torah and freedom; nor should we.

The talmudic story of the oil has become a familiar “fable.” But consider it afresh. You have one vial of purified oil. It’s an eight-day process to prepare a new supply. You want to conduct an eight-day rededication ceremony, to make up for the Sukkot holiday cycle, which many people missed, due to the war, and to echo the inauguration of sacrifices in the Tabernacle, which took place on the eighth day (Leviticus 9). How do you proceed?

The logical answer is to announce that a rededication ceremony will take place in one week. Otherwise, you will light the Menorah with pomp and circumstance, and then, on day two, the Temple will go dark.

One message of the story of the oil is: take that risk. When there is oil, light the wick. Use your vessel. Don’t try to hoard or save light. Have faith that each day will bring its own oil — its own riches and anointing.

About 350 years before the Maccabees, at the time of the prophet Zachariah, the first Temple had been destroyed, and there was a chance that Zerubavel, governor of Judah, could build a second Temple. An angel came to Zachariah and showed him a gold Menorah with a bowl that poured oil from above onto the seven branches. On either side of this Menorah were olive trees with ready, abundant fruit. The angel explained the vision this way: “This is the word of Adonai to Zerubavel, saying: ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says Adonai of hosts.’” (Zachariah 4:6)

How will we ever rebuild and rejuvenate our temples, if not by God’s spirit?

Oil and light pour gently down from above. God will not coerce us into seeing or accepting blessings; yet, what we need is at hand. Infinity, by definition, is enough. This holiday, may you enjoy, publicize and transmit the light. A

Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue (makom.org) and a frequent scholar-in-residence. Her Web site, RabbiDebra.com, offers Chanukah resources, gifts and teachings.

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