The following piece was originally written for the SAR High School blog, “The Grand Conversation,” a space where SAR faculty members share their ideas on Jewish life, Modern Orthodox education, and issues of the day.
We strike a match, ignite a flame, gaze into the fire, reflect, think and celebrate. Like we do each week as we welcome and bid farewell to Shabbat, today, and for eight days, for a few moments we will pause from our hectic routines, put aside the “to-do” lists of our Google drives and stop to reflect on life through the lens of the flame.
I have always been mesmerized by fire. The allure and power of the dancing flame seems to stand at odds with fire as a most basic part of nature. It is an elemental force that is entirely natural, yet we know how to harness and control it, as is evident in some of our most basic behaviors: humans are alone in the world in cooking their food before eating it. We turn inedible meat into a substance that sustains and nurtures us and one that has allowed to us develop in sophisticated and unimaginable ways. Fire, then, is a marker of our progress and a creator of our culture.
This is reflected in a midrash about the first human encounter with fire, as well. Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer §20 tells that on the first Saturday night, as darkness approached and Adam realized he was without the protection of the Shabbat, he began to fear the snake. This is a combination of two of humankind’s most primal fears: darkness and snakes. The fear is assuaged by the appearance of a column of fire. Fire allows humankind to conquer fear, to conquer the natural dangers of the world; with control of fire, humans begin to rule over nature, rather than be ruled by it.
In the life of Moshe, too, fire plays a central role. In just one perek, Moshe is born, grows up in the palace, kills a man, runs away, saves the girls, marries, and has two children, bringing his life full circle. Then he sees a fire. It is in the fire that God finds Moshe and Moshe finds God. Moshe needs the break from routine, the stepping out of reality into the world of the miraculous to recognize the potential, the creativity and the leadership qualities that he carries within. The fire provides that opportunity. After encountering the fire, Moshe knows his mission in life, returns to Egypt and begins the process of liberating the Jewish people.
As we celebrate Chanukkah, the symbol of the fire, so foundational in the lives of Adam and Moshe is what we focus all of our attention upon. Lighting candles is the one mitzvah that we are commanded to keep, and it is directly connected to the miracle related in the gemara (Shabbat 21b) – the candles commemorating the lights of the miracle that took place in the Bet ha-Mikdash 2178 years ago.
Interestingly, the gemara does not say that a festival was instituted because of the victory over the Seleucid army; instead, we commemorate a miracle, a small detail really, that took place within the broader context of that victory. Why does the gemara focus on this detail, rather than explaining the entire narrative? The light of the menorah was important, but it was the military victory, and the resulting political independence that were the primary events of the story of Chanukkah! (This is clear from the narratives as found in the two books of Maccabees, as well as from the brief version recited in ‘al ha-nisim, which focuses on the military victory, and the Rambam’s retelling of the story at the beginning of the laws of Chanukah, which focuses on the political accomplishments.)
Rav Ezra Bick of Yeshivat Har Etzion suggests, that we focus on the candles as a way of framing the broader narrative, as providing a lens through which to see the whole story. At a time in our religious history when there appeared not to be enough spirit to continue, when the old ways were virtually dead, when the flame was almost entirely extinguished, a small spark survived and that was enough to fuel the flames of growth, potential and renewal. When a fire is down to its final glow, it may seem to be all but dead, but so long as there exists a burning ember it can be re-ignited into a powerful and life-changing force. Any moment in time can be the start of a new Temple, a new flame, no matter what may have preceded it.
When it comes to learning about, watching and celebrating the miracle of Chanukah with our children and with our students, we are reminded, day after day, and one creative achievement of theirs after the next, that all that is needed is for them to have the spark from within and then fan the creativity and watch it flourish. Immersing ourselves in the educational life, culture and spiritual community that is SAR High School allows us to witness this on a daily basis. Our building is constantly permeated with the noise of intellectual rigor, the depth of spiritual questing, and the colors, scents and sounds of creative accomplishments. One need only walk the floors, or stand in the middle of the Beit Midrash and look up, to feel it and sense it. One of our primary goals, then, as an educational institution, is collaboratively figuring out how to best inspire and ignite the passion and creativity.
This is done in varied and thoughtful ways by our community of educators. It is first and foremost reflected in our dual curriculum that is diverse and individualized, with multiple opportunities for student choice, as well as student input. Our upper-classmen are provided ample opportunities for elective classes, in both Judaic and secular studies, with many of those classes involving culminating creative projects and presentations. Students who are interested in song, can elect to take a class on niggunim and nusach tefilla; those who want to explore halakhic topics in a more hands-on environment, can opt to take a Halakha Lab class; students interested in art, can learn in the Drawing from the Text class, where foundational Jewish texts are analyzed and explored through the medium of charcoal and paint; students interested in media can take a Middot Through Media class which integrates contemporary culture with fundamental values and lessons of life; and students interested in science and ethics can opt for a class in Comparative Medical Ethics, and engage with broader questions of technology, medicine and Rabbinic law. The list is long and the offerings diverse, presented as a palette of different colors, affording the students a chance to pick up a brush and paint their own individual canvases.
Our Seniors have already started thinking about and planning for their capstone Senior Exploration projects where they can choose to do fieldwork, independently generate creative projects, or work on individualized research. We present them with options, pair them with faculty mentors, guide them and watch them flourish. In many ways, our robust faculty Professional Development program mirrors the desires, goals and expectations that we have for our Seniors. All faculty members are currently in the midst of either individual or collaborative projects, which cross disciplines, enabling us to tap into the ideas, creativity and strengths of our colleagues and friends.
While the creative and collaborative energy is felt on a daily basis, it is heightened and felt most acutely during the days of Chanukah, when we celebrate with our Macca “Bee”/Color War. The competitive energy and spirit burst forth in the form of song, music, animation, photography, poetry-slams, dramatic improvisation, iron-chef competitions, literature and sport, all framed within a context of Torah and values central to our mission. There is palpable energy and messy, creative wonder that builds strength and community. It is awe-inspiring in a way that is deeply rooted in our tradition. Students and teachers alike draw inspiration from one another to grow, flourish, renew and lead. We just need to stop for a moment, gaze into the dancing flames and remind ourselves of the opportunities. Seemingly miraculous, the possibilities are endless.