Something I love about Chanukkah is reflections.
When I was small, we often used to light the candles in my grandparents’ house. They had a ‘through room’ with bay windows looking onto the road in front and out into their large, half-wild garden at the back.
I used to stare not just at the candles but at their reflections, and the reflections of their reflections as the lights were mirrored back and forth from window to window. I would watch them receding, over the street and out into the city on the one side, and through the dark garden on the other, until they were caught in the branches of a huge oak tree, the venerable marker of some ancient boundary.
I saw those lights then, and still see them now, as fragile illuminations, flickering markers of hope and warmth, small fingers of humanity reaching out into the night. How desperately we need them now at the close of this year of hatred and war!
Those lights are to me the true miracle of Chanukkah. As Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger wrote, ‘For this the human being was created, to give light in the darkness.’
Can those lights, stretched out like hands of greeting, be us, become humanity, seeking each other, calling to one another in a world grown dark with cruelty and fury?
Beha’alotecha et hanerot, says the Torah. Don’t read those words, insist the mystics, as if all they mean is ‘When you light the menorah.’ Take them according to their literal meaning: ‘When you raise yourself up with the lights.’ For God’s light burns within us all, though it’s often hidden even from ourselves.
Can we find that light in our own hearts? Can others help us? Can we, even if only occasionally, rekindle that light in each other, through kindness, attentiveness, listening to one another’s stories, aspirations and griefs? Might we, then, by means of this heart-light, look beyond the frustrations and festering resentments, the ignorance and wilful disinformation, that so often set us apart? Can we hope?
As Jews we have often hoped in vain. But we have never submitted to the notion that hope itself is in vain. ‘Od lo avdah tikvateinu, our hope has never ceased’: that is the true anthem of the Jewish People.
But yesterday, watching the reflections of all eight candles on the final night of Chanukkah, and the reflections of their reflections now stretching out from my own home, I felt a sense of loss. ‘Farewell, light and hope of Chanukkah!’ I felt I was saying. ‘Farewell! Don’t get lost in the darkness!’
It was then that it struck me for the first time that those flames might be travelling in the opposite direction. Maybe they weren’t going out into the darkness but seeking to come in from it. Maybe they were saying to me: ‘Let me in!’
There passed through my mind the beautiful lines from Yehudah Halevi’s sea poem, when the waters, finally calm after a terrifying storm, once again peacefully mirror the night sky
‘And the stars are astray in the heart of the sea
Like exiles driven from their homes.’
So I ask myself now, ‘Whom can I let in to my heart-space, to my home? What light might they bring with them, and what might I see differently, or entirely anew, by its flames?’
That is my hope for this year ahead, that, whoever we are, we may see further, more widely and more deeply, that we have seen before.