William Hamilton

The light that the Shamash emits

“And no office is more blessed than that of a servant of light.” This is how Herzl concludes an essay he called The Menorah. It begins, “Once there was a man who deep in his soul felt the need to be a Jew.” This need had been awakened by resurgent antiSemitism. Yet when he gazed upon the Hanukkah lights, hope began to gracefully dance within him.

He noted how the first night’s light stood alone. But then he was soothed by the addition of companion lights each night. Together, their glow dissipated a darkening descent that was swallowing sweetness all around him. It helped him discover a belief in the promise of his people’s rebirth.

This Shabbat we meet a biblical Joseph who seems very much alone. He has been abandoned by everyone he knew. His father had sent him into the jaws of hostile brothers who sought him harm. They sold him to a passing caravan, imagining that this meant the demise of his smug dreams.

There is a curious detail in this week’s portion of Torah when Joseph is threatened by the sexual advances of Potifar’s wife. The chapter contains eight mentions of God’s proper Name (Adonai) (Gen. 39). Eight is the biblical number for covenant (Brit Milah on day 8). Amidst abandonment and temptation, Joseph is able to discover spiritual strength he never knew. He demonstrates “the way of Adonai, to do righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19). Despite being tempted and trapped, he begins to sense his higher purpose, beyond his own desires. It is not accidental that this discovery doesn’t happen in some sacred religious setting. He senses God’s presence and purposes for him in an opulent residence, while resisting seductive entrapment.

Of course, eight is also the complete number of Hanukkah lights. There is a very unusual precept that insists that we advertise Hanukkah. It miracle must be publicized. This isn’t true about Yom Kippur or Passover. It only applies to Hanukkah. Why?

Beyond championing values like courage, distinctiveness, and rededication, perhaps there is something exceptional about the function of a shamash, the servant light. Why is there a shamash? Because lights have a purpose. The purpose of the eight lights is to publicize the miracle. The shamash’s purpose is to light others.

Not a bad vocation. I’d love to have that job description on my business card or LinkedIn profile.

Herzl’s story was his own. As we contemplate our own stories, it’s fascinating to realize that this Sunday when we light the first light, it too is not alone. It enjoys the company of a shamash, the light that serves to light others.

Companionship matters. It’s difficult to sustain ourselves by ourselves. It can be even harder to uplift ourselves by ourselves.

Why publicize this of all holidays? In order for each one of us to aspire to become a servant of light.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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