The Hanukkah candle is unlike any other candle.
It is not like a regular candle, which gives light.
It is not like a birthday candle, which brings happiness.
It is not like a Shabbat candle, which ushers in peace.
The Hanukkah candle makes us wise.
Hebrew has different words for using our mind: “נבון” (knowledgeable), “פיקח” (smart), “שכלתי” (intelligent), “גאון” (genius).
The Hanukkah candle reminds us of the lighting of the Menorah that stood in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Talmud says that one who looked at the Menorah became wise – חכם (Chacham). Not smart. Not intelligent. Not clever. But wise.
Wisdom (chachmah) denotes a particular type of insight – of eternity, of holiness, of God. The Temple in Jerusalem was the channel for receiving God’s wisdom, called prophecy, or on a lower level, ruach hakodesh (holy spirit). One doesn’t become wise just by looking at a candle or any other source of light. It’s not the light; it’s the national symbol of God’s eternal wisdom. Someone becomes wise by looking at the national symbol of light.
We don’t talk about it very much but the story of Hanukkah really centers on the Temple (Beit HaMikdash) of Jerusalem:
- The Greeks tried to defile the Temple,
- One small container of the Temple’s oil refused to become desacralized,
- The Temple Priests (who according to the Torah should not go to war) led the physical battles.
Yet, I have a hard time connecting to the Temple.
I have to admit that at Ayeka we don’t talk much (or ever) about the Temple in Jerusalem. It is a subject to be avoided, almost a taboo. With the one day exception of Tisha b’Av, we never bring it up. The reasons are multiple:
- We don’t need a physical center anymore, we have evolved beyond that historical need, it seems archaic,
- We don’t want animal sacrifices – too much blood & guts and cruelty to animals,
- It’s too politically contentious to talk about the Temple Mount.
But the most honest reason I don’t talk about it is not any of these valid concerns. It’s just that I don’t personally connect to it. Though I live kilometers from the Temple Mount, I have never ascended it. There are so many other pressing issues in life that this seems more of a vestige from a glorious past. Regarding Hanukkah, instead of discussing the fight for the Temple and its holiness, I usually talk about personal miracles.
Recently, I was learning a book of Rav Kook with my daughter and he mentioned that in order to live a life of full spiritual awareness a person should clarify for oneself the layers and virtues of a person’s soul: of the Jewish People, of Eretz Yisrael, of the whole cosmos, and of the yearning for building the Beit HaMikdash. I just skipped the last one.
But this year my Hannuka candle is coming to bust me out of my avoidance, and I’m grateful for that.
Why? This year is different. This year – I am drowning.
I am drowning in the torrent of daily news. If I never have another conversation about COVID-19 that will be fine with me. If I never read another article about elections and politics — that will be fine with me. I’m drowning in yesterday’s news. Details and details of news. News and breaking news and heart-breaking news.
I’m drowning and it seems virtually impossible to escape these never-ending tumultuous waves. They just keep rolling in – if not in news broadcasts then in conversations waiting in line at the grocery store or on the phone with relatives. I feel like my vision has shrunk to about 6 inches in front of my face. The timeline of my concern is about 24 hours, from yesterday to today. My world is getting smaller and smaller. It’s physically depleting and spiritually exhausting.
A tiny Hanukkah candle comes to bust all that apart. Bust me out of my smallness. Bust me out of my own world which is becoming smaller and smaller. Bust me out of my gloom and pessimism.
Hanukkah candles come to evoke within us the memory, vision, and hope of national holiness. We have national wisdom, national light, national purpose.
It’s just too easy for me to reduce the message to a personal one, devoid of the collective element. What I need to personalize is — “How relevant and alive for me is restoring the light of the Jewish people? Can I find the courage to fight for like the Maccabees for the wisdom of the Jewish people?
Rav Kook writes: “Every nation is chosen to bring particular gifts into the world, and the gift of the Jewish People is to bring God’s light, to restore the world’s original oneness and harmony.” To raise the awareness not only of a hidden spiritual world lying within our physical reality, but that this spiritual world is alive, beautiful, full of nurturing light, and continually offering the miraculous which impacts our cosmos and our lives at all times.
The miracle of Hanukkah recurs when a small candle busts us out of our small worlds and wakes us up to being reconnected to the spiritual wisdom of the Jewish People, to being the People who bring an awareness of oneness, harmony, and God’s light into the world.
Questions for Reflection:
- How much of your Hanukkah celebrating is connected to the Jewish People? To the Menorah and the Temple of Jerusalem?
- Have you ever had a moment of receiving God’s light, of spiritual insight?
- What does the Hanukkah candle evoke for you?
- What does becoming “wise” mean for you?