I have always loved the Torah’s instructions for the lighting of the menorah, with which this week’s portion begins. It was the responsibility of the priests, the children of Aaron, who were commanded to use only the finest olive oil. They had to fill each lamp with sufficient fuel to burn through the longest nights of the year, to shine out amidst the darkness.
The relief depiction on Titus’s arch in Rome, showing defeated Jews carrying the Menorah in their enemies’ victory parade after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE, is vivid testament to the historical accuracy of the account of the lighting of the lamps in the Temple.
But more and more often I think of the description as a metaphor for an essential reality, a truth without which it would be almost impossible to live.
The Torah doesn’t say ‘Kindle the lamps;’ instead it uses the expression, ‘Cause the lights to ascend.’
How often in life the inner flame burns low, and bewilderment engulfs us. ‘I said “the darkness will crush me,” wrote the Psalmist, pausing before continuing, “But darkness is not too dark for you.”
Who is that ‘you’? Who, when they threaten to gutter, causes the inner flames of hope and joy to re-ascend inside us? What refills the spirit’s internal lamp, hoping it will burn through even the longest nights?
Sometimes it’s life’s simple wonders which restore us, like the moon which stood in stillness just above the trees, luminous and wonderful, as dawn came yesterday. Or as when a friend said, ‘Did you see that?’ ‘See what?’ I asked. ‘Oh, nothing,’ he answered. ‘It was just a little spider’s web, with dew on it, in a moment of sun.’ It wasn’t nothing; it was glory.
Sometimes it’s the dog, literally as well as figuratively, I walked home through local woods near midnight recently. It was so dark I couldn’t see the path and lost the feel of tarmac underfoot. Only the tiny patter of dog paws on the broken twigs made me find the way.
Sometimes it’s a stranger, like the attendant in one of the rooms of the National Gallery, who came up to me as I was drifting through on my own and said very quietly, ‘I don’t know why, but something is telling me to say to you: Remember life is precious and know that you have something to give.’ It was three seconds of solicitude 35 years ago, but it still directs my path.
Sometimes its music or a line of a poem. Since before sunrise the lines of this prayer have been calling me:
Pay attention to the soul, jacinth, agate, amethyst;
Hewn from the throne of glory… to give light towards the dawn.
I can’t fathom the depths of what these words mean, but they’ve been singing inside my head.
There was a programme on music as survival on Radio 4 yesterday: ‘I was in the midst of post-natal depression, but when she started to sing, I felt she was speaking directly, personally to me.’
Most often it’s those we’re liable to take for granted, family, friends, community, and those ordinary, those ordinary-special things we do together: ‘Come on, shall we go for that walk?’ The love is in the everyday.
What I’m sure about is that we are all the children of Aaron, responsible for ‘causing the flame to ascend’ in each other’s lives. We can’t always succeed, but it is the determination not to give up which makes the record of human history not just painful but humbling and endlessly inspiring.
‘My light is on your hands, and your light is in mine:’ the rabbis put these words in God’s mouth. But they are true for every one of us towards each other too, and it’s for this that we are here.