By Katie Bauman
Light is a powerful image.
It represents understanding. “At last, he’s seen the light!” It signifies creation. “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” It is an expression of joy. “You are the light of my life.”
And it is without doubt one of the most significant symbols in Judaism. We light candles to begin every Jewish holiday. At the moment the wick comes alive, the holy time has begun.
But on one holiday, Jews use this symbol not only to designate the beginning of a holy time but also to tell a deeply affecting and resonant story of who we are. That holiday is Chanukah.
As many know, for eight nights Jews light candles in our homes, each night increasing the light by one candle, until on the final night of the holiday, the house is aglow with the light of all eight candles plus one “servant” candle, called the shamash, which lights all the rest.
The sight of a menorah completely aglow is beautiful, almost magical. But the act of the lighting carries with it layers and layers of meaning, an autobiography of who we are as Jews and perhaps as human beings as well.
We light eight candles to recall the famous tale of the cruz of oil that lasted eight days when it should have only lasted one – a Divine miracle. But we also light eight candles because we remember a small band of Jewish fighters who should never, by any reasonable expectation, have triumphed over adversity. But they did.
And this is also a miracle, one brought about by human courage to stand up for a belief, and human hope that doing so would not be in vain.
We begin with one candle and increase the light to show our belief that, with faith and human hands, light and all it represents has the potential to grow in the world. We use one candle to kindle the others to remind ourselves that the warmth and light we hold inside must be shared, for it has the capacity to chase away someone’s darkness.
The Festival of Lights, a name for Chanukah almost as old as the story of the Maccabees itself, commemorates historical events, celebrates human triumph, recalls moments of Divine support, and affirms an approach to living that is defined by realism, optimism, and a belief in light that can penetrate darkness.
For candles are a lot like human beings. Another force must give them life. They have tremendous power to offer brightness and warmth, just like us. They can dwindle so much that we think they will go out, but they show incredible resilience, just like us.
Their light can be shared with others without losing anything themselves. And though their capacity to burn is finite, like the life they represent, if they’ve shared their light, it is never really gone from this world.
Katie Bauman is assistant rabbi at Temple Israel.