Candles have been used as symbols since they were first invented. Despite not being particularly necessary in the modern electric world, candles are used by every religion and in every society. Uses vary, but cover life cycle events from birth till death. They communicate different messages from romance, eternity, comfort and peace to hope and faith. When Yitzchak married Rivka the miracles found in Sarah’s tent returned, among them the candles that burned from week to week: “For whilst Sarah was living, a light had been burning in the tent from one Sabbath eve to the next”
There are times when we are permitted to benefit from the light, whilst at other times such as Chanukah we are forbidden to use the light. The Yom Tov of Chanuka leaves us standing in the warm glow of the candles. Whilst the Rabbis debate which is preferable oil or wax candles their voices are unanimous on the issue of not using them for our own needs. The candles must be looked at, meditated upon, contemplated and lessons learned.
In his eulogy for Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovitz Z’’L Rabbi Sacks Z’’L contemplated the use of candles in three areas of Jewish life, the Candles of Shabbos, the Ner Havdalah and the Candles of Chanuka. The following thought piece is a fusion of his ideas with some of my own.
The Shabbat light symbolises the light within, the light in the Jewish home. The strength of our community is measured not by outward success but by its inner spiritual dynamic. If our homes are broken, our children cold to the warm glow of our tradition, the lights of Shabbat a dim flicker, then we are missing the point. The tranquillity of our homes must be a priority. It doesn’t matter that we have a vibrant Judaism in the beit midrash or with our chavrusa if our homes are cold lifeless, loveless places. Our homes must be places where our children are noticed and brought close. The candles that fill our homes on Shabbat call us to dedicate ourselves to their message. The angels that give us their bracha want to see our homes reflecting the light of the Shabbat candles. Let us make sure we give the angel an opportunity to daven for that each week.
After 25 hours the glow of the Shabbat candles comes to an end and we light a new candle signaling the start of a new time, the “sheishet yemei ha’maaseh.” Not all time is the same, we need to be deeply aware and attuned to the fluctuating kedusha during the week.
Rebbe Nachman has an entire Torah on why it’s difficult to sleep on motzei Shabbat, it is not because he slept too long on a summer afternoon! We ought to feel differently after a Shabbat. As we chant or sing the words of Havdalah we become acutely aware that the world is a scary place and we need to fortify ourselves with the emunah that hinei kel yeshuati evtach v’lo efchad. The light of Havdalah teaches us to understand that we cannot be the same all the time. Life is not about being happy, or giving shiur or dancing. Life according to Shlomo Hamelech is about knowing how to act in every situation “L’kol zman Va’et l’chol chefetz…” The wisdom is to know when to make Havadala on one activity and embrace something different. The candle we use is unique because it is a single flame embracing many lights one candle woven out of many strands, to teach that the light by which we live in all our many contexts – whether at home or in the street should always be one and the same. As we change contexts we must take our values our kedusha and apply it in all areas. We cannot shockle in shul or in the beit midrash and swindle and fib in the boardroom. We dare not leave Hakadosh Boruch Hu in our briefcase or neatly folded in our pockets. We cannot claim to believe in the value of life whilst dismissing medical advice and potentially putting lives at risk. The same doubt that permits chilul Shabbat must carry into the working week in how we treat and engage with those we meet. Those that maintain their values, are blessed in the knowledge that the world respects and loves them, which we know is an indication of the love Hashem has for them- “ahuvim l’maala v’ahuvim l’mata.”
The light of Chanukah is the opposite of the Shabbat candles. This light is meant to radiate beyond our homes, to publicise the miracles, to light up the public domain. We dare not forget Hashem’s plan for the Jewish people to be a “mamleches Kohanim v’goy Kadosh” or as Yishaya Ha’Novi explained it “I created you, and appointed you a covenant people, a light of nations.” The Radak on this verse explains that the Jews keep the other nations going through our light. Our light is the Torah. On Chanukah we learn to shine our light outside and ready ourselves for our national mission. Over the bitter years of exile we have forgotten this aspect of our Judaism. Many have become isolated and insular, they look at the world and want nothing to do with it. This ideology is missing the light of Chanuka. In its’ warm glow we are meant to warm up the world until everyone recognises Hashem as King. There is an outward facing aspect of being Jewish, which is tapped into paradoxically at the time of the year when we want to be indoors. In the depths of winter we recall our national mandate and answer the call of the Maccabees “Mi L’Hashem eilai?” We are not a religious community, we are a nation with a big job to do. We must use the light of Chanukah to accomplish it.
It was Shakespeare who wrote:
“How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
In this quote, as with many other situations, Shakespeare uses the candle as a symbol of guidance. Shakespeare didn’t know how fortunate the Jews are to light candles so often. The candle pierces the darkness and, while delicate and small, it can cast away darkness and show us the way to happier times. As we clear away the candles let us hold on to their lessons , feel their warmth and use their light to see our world a little more clearly.