It’s not just the presents, the chocolate coins and the doughnuts which make Chanukah so many people’s favourite festival. It’s the lights.
The Chanukah candles represent the most inward and most outward of illuminations. They are both our inner light and the light we owe each other, our society and the world.
‘The human spirit is a lamp of God,’ quotes one of my favourite Hasidic teachers, Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger. The single, seemingly insufficient jar of pure olive oil the Maccabees found amidst the ruins of the Jerusalem temple symbolises to him ‘the tiny point’ of purity and holiness which exists in every human being. This point may be small but it is incorruptible, despite all life’s challenges and temptations. Its flame can never be extinguished, because the light with which it burns comes from God.
Hence, in typical Hasidic fashion, the Rebbe creatively misreads the Torah’s command to Aaron, who is charged with kindling the lamps on the Menorah in the Temple. What the Torah says is ‘When you cause the flames to ascend.’ What the Torah really means, he explains, is ‘You must cause your light to ascend’, words addressed not just to Aaron but to every single person, always.
It is often far from easy to find our own inner light. Anxiety, the ceaseless noise of endless interactions, make it hard for us to find recourse to our deeper inner selves. Often, there’s just too much to do, the opportunity simply isn’t there. At other times, sorrow or confusion hover like thick clouds between our harried minds and the stillness we can’t access in our hearts.
That’s why I love the small lights of Chanukah. Just looking at them can help us find the way back.
Frequently, though, we need the help of others, just as the candles on the Chanukiah have to be lit by a shammash. Time and again it’s acts of kindness, generous insights, a word of appreciation, an image from a poem, which illumine the world for me, re-opening the path to my own spirit.
Yet, intimate as our inner lights may be, the rabbis of the Talmud stipulated that the Chanukiah on which they burn must be placed overlooking the reshut harabbim, the busiest public highway. To the mystics those inner flames are loving kindness, moral strength, truth, constancy, beauty and commitment. They are nurtured by faith in life, trust in God, and hope.
It is not enough to reflect on them in solitude. We must use them to light the high roads, back alleys, porches where the homeless try to sleep, chambers where politicians legislate, – all those places, hidden and in plain sight, which define us as a society and world. We have a public duty to contribute from the heart, to shine light both on our own conscience and on that of our entire society, and to act according to what we see.
Chanukah is not only the festival of light, but also of courage, the determination to live according to the values which God’s light illumines in our souls.