One of the most persistent themes on Beyond BT is about retaining the enthusiasm and excitement of the initial stages of reconnecting with one’s heritage and spiritual source when real life kicks in… and kicks, and kicks! Another one is squeezing metaphors out of the Chanuka menorah. Here’s another one.
It’s for the ninth night, when the menorah is stored away and there are no more lamps to ignite. Wise Hillel! Shammai, for his own reasons and based on his own tradition, had us start out with eight lamps and reduce the number over each succeeding evening. Hillel, however, taught that over the course of each succeeding night of Chanuka we add another bit of brightness.
This works well for us.
Now, we know this is the darkest time of year. We do not, of course, accept the cynical view of historians, always ready to discredit religious tradition, who view the Festival of Lights as a mere adaptation of that logical reaction to the dark which is to strike to a light. But there is certainly something to be said for the idea that if a little bit of light raises our spirits when it is dark, a little more, as the dark remains, or even, perhaps, increases — along with the cold and, in the regions of the Holy Land, the wretched wet — perhaps a bit more light will help even a bit more, and so on.
And so on, and so on. Until eight. And we have many traditions about eight, the number at which we break past the natural, i.e., the days of creation. Once we are at eight, we have done all we can. There are no nine days of Chanuka; by the ninth day, the regular process of preparing oil had completed, and no miracle was needed. And so on the ninth night we do not light the Chanuka menorah in our homes.
That was well and good in the Bais HaMikdash, but what about for us, now, bereft of its light — and now, on the ninth night, lacking the light of the menorahs in our windows or on our doorsteps or tables as well? What do we do when the crystalline sparkle we thought would always warm us is now gone, and it is still dark, and, it seems, will be for some time — and it is only getting colder?
Well, we know, again, that it would not have done any good to just keep lighting and lighting. Some cultures try to blot out the dark, so to speak, by a riot of tinsel, light and color. Eight days of Chanuka? We’ll sing about twelve days! Ornaments of red, green, gold; color, lights, trinkets, trees, balls — color, light, light, light, light, light, strung up high on trees, projected from the highest buildings!
Does this make the dark go away? Or are we merely jaded by the artificial stimulation, the garish, madding photons vomiting up a “light” that is useless as true illumination — that is, to see where one is going; to avoid obstacles; to gain perspective?
It hurts when the eight days are over and it is still dark and, perhaps, we are not as inspired by the Maoz Tzur and the spinning of the dreydel as we had hoped to be. We miss the warm glow of the olive oil, almost as comforting as a human embrace on a chill night. Real life’s harshness intrudes. But as we hunker down for what is, in fact, the winter ahead, what do we see in the fading echo of the light?
Were we inspired, did we grow, during that period of special illumination? Did we inspire someone else, even a little, in some positive way? Did we do nothing more than spin the dreydel? Did we encourage the dreydel to spin a little less? Or are we spinning when we try to convince ourselves one way or the other?
Each night’s added candle matters until it doesn’t, just as each step a child’s parent takes matters as he runs alongside a wobbling bicycle until, finally, letting go. Once the child rides by himself, whether or not it works out the first time, he never needs the parent running alongside again. Those steps will never be forgotten, though.
What if the child, sadly, forgets them? The parent will not. There is absolute value in this world. We give because giving is good. Giving inspires.
So too the light given off by flame inspires long after the light is gone, even if all we can see now is cruel, thankless dark.
The only darkness that matters is the one inside ourselves, and each other, not the one outside the windowpane. The season is irrelevant; Daylight Savings Time does not have to rule our moods.
We do not need tinsel, or even menorahs, or physical light at all, to illuminate that void if we can, with God’s help, just recall something of what we saw by the light we lit, or that someone we care about lit for us, in the world of the spirit, until the florid blaze of spring.
The eight days light us up with awareness and perspective that should enhance our fulfillment of our holy mission in this world.