During this festival of lights, Hanukkah, I became fascinated with the meaning of candles in Judaism and why light is such an important symbol in our tradition? We light candles for Shabbat, for Havdalah, prior to major Jewish holidays, on the yahrzeit (anniversary of the day of death) of a close loved one, and of course, on Hanukkah.
Candle lighting is often thought of as a reminder of G-d’s divine presence and as a reminder that the occasion is holy and distinct for our everyday lives. It is also equated with joy. I learned that light is one of the enduring symbols for G-d in our sacred texts. In Jewish tradition, the candle’s flame is thought to symbolically represent the human soul and serves as a reminder of the frailty and beauty of life.
Light also serves as a metaphor for Torah, mitzvot, and the human soul. “A mitzvah is a candle, and the Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23) and “A candle of G-d is the soul of man” (Proverbs 20:27). Therefore, performing a mitzvah is like lighting an internal candle, according to mystical commentator Sefat Emet. “The more light a person brings about in the physical darkness, through doing the mitzvot, the more that one will enlighten one’s soul from above.” Thus, the mitzvot are seen as a way to open our souls to G-d’s light and spread that light into the world around us.
On this holiday, the sanctity of lighting the candles really resonated with me. The beauty and warmth of the flames gave me a sense of comfort and appreciation for life. Although this pandemic has been disruptive to my schedule and normal way of life, I realized how blessed I am to be healthy, have means, and be gainfully employed when so many are suffering with food insecurity, unemployment, and depression. That’s not to say I haven’t been frustrated, saddened and even angry, however, I’ve also have had the opportunity to refocus on my relationships, my life’s purpose and my contribution to the world.
I have gone the extra mile to connect with people through phone calls, Zoom and my writings. I have connected with new people and built new friendships with people I’ve never met in person. I’ve grown and developed. I learned much about myself, my calling, and have a deeper sense of my passion and responsibility towards others. I’ve realized that although I might be lonely, I am not alone.
Participating this week in a meditation sit sponsored by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality on a kavanah (intention) for Hanukkah, I pondered about the oil in the Temple expected to last for one day, lasting eight days instead. The leader drew an analogy that these resources lasted for the time needed and that we each have more resilience and strength than we expect. We were urged to look inward to connect and trust that inner light.
The learning session ended with reading of a quote from Nelson Mandela’s Inauguration Speech in 1993. This spoke volumes to me and I want to share it with you now:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves: Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of G-d? Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are born to make manifest the glory of G-d that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we consciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
There is a lot of light in each one of us. We must each look inside and connect to that light and share the brightness with others. The Jewish day begins at night to teach us that darkness is always followed by the dawn of a new day. There’s always a chance to start anew.
We have seen our first glimmer of light, a vaccine, in the darkness of this pandemic. Hopefully, in the next year, we will once again meet and greet each other in person. We will have a renewed appreciation for life and others. We will all be better people for having this experience.
As told in a story by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, we each need to be a “lamplighter." We need to first see the lamp within ourselves and then go from “lamp to lamp to set them alight.” As you light all eight candles tonight and the flames are aglow, my hope is that may we all serve as candles in the dark offering hope for a brighter tomorrow.