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By Mendel Weinberger
Hanukah. The Festival of Lights. It is perhaps the most beloved of the Jewish Festivals. No soul searching, no fasting, no shivering in plywood huts fishing pine needles out of your soup, no breaking your teeth on unleavened bread, no drinking until you drop. Just a few quiet moments with your family sitting around the multi- colored candles singing "Rock of Ages", eating potato latkes (USA, Europe) or jelly doughnuts (Israel), and watching your kids spin the dreidel. Just a few moments of peace and tranquility gazing at the flickering flames in your living room while outside the flashing colored lights, fake snow, and tinsel adorn every storefront and the frantic gift giving season is playing full blast.
You retell the heroic tale of Judah Macabee and his fearless men, the wondrous victory of the weak over the strong, the few over the many, the righteous over the wicked. And of course, you tell of the oil that miraculously burned for eight days. But it is the lights that draw you, that hold your gaze, that remind you of the mystery - the mystery of Jewish history, the mystery of G-d's Will, the mystery of life. As you gaze into the flames, think about light - physical light and spiritual light. Where does it come from? And where is it going?
The sun. Radiant orb, emanating light and warmth. A luminous king who rules the day, shining a blinding light at noon, and a soft glow at sunset, blistering heat in July and a welcome, comforting warmth in January. It is the most consistent element in the world, appearing each day in the east, where is begins its daily march across the sky to set in the west - a symbol of G-d's benevolence. In Hebrew sunlight is called ohr hashemesh (the light that serves). It bursts forth from the sun as a new creation, yet is constantly connected. Sunlight surrounds us, but we cannot grasp it. We feel its presence, measure its heat, harness its power, but we cannot possess it. The light belongs forever to the king - that blinding, blazing inferno hanging 95 million miles up in the sky.
Inside the body of the sun there is no light only essence, an element that defies description. Is it a fire? Yes and no. Is it a gas? Yes and no. It's a flaming sphere of hydrogen and helium that never goes out. In its source, light is without substance, no beginning and no end. But as it leaves its origin, the essence of the sun is hidden, and a new generated light is born. As the light travels farther and farther away from the sun, it becomes limited, defined, and restricted. It can shine through your window but not through a brick wall. Its power can make electricity, heat water, create photosynthesis, and give you a tan.
You can put sunlight through red, green, or blue glass but it won't change the light. It only changes the way you see it. And it certainly doesn't change the sun, because the sun doesn't care how we see the light. Sunlight doesn't discriminate. It shines on the flower as well as the garbage dump, the mountaintop and the valley floor, the righteous and the wicked. Sunlight's one major flaw is that it never, ever unites and clothes itself in the physical world. It cannot. For if it did, it would have to disengage from the sun and that would be its end.
Candlelight. Drawn from primordial fire, the most spiritual element in creation. Forever striving upward to unite with its source above, yet held down by wick and oil. It consumes its fuel with an endless hunger, radiating a soft, friendly glow that dispels much darkness. A light that is a comfort to the lonely, a seductress to the lover, a ray of hope to the downtrodden, and a symbol of the striving spirit to the seeker. As opposed to the sun, fire does unite with physical matter to the point where it needs creation in order to reveal itself. Yet the light produced comes from a higher place. One can possess candlelight as long as it remains connected to its source. Its limitation is that it depends on and is directly affected by the material that feeds its fire.
The sun and the candle - two sources of light holding deep meaning for humanity.
But for the Jew these two symbols hold the key to creation and our partnership in perfecting it. Consider now that sunlight and candlelight are metaphors for the spiritual light that creates and maintains the universe. G-d created the light by an act of tzimtzum (contraction). He so to speak removed His presence and produced a light that could be at the same time connected to Him yet far away from His Essence.
A light that could create worlds but would never be affected by them, could enliven existence yet never unite with it. This light is like the light of the sun, generated from the place of G-d's infinite benevolence, the highest spiritual world of atzilut (emanation). It is the foundation for every world below it including our material world. Like the sun we cannot gaze directly into it, for this would blind us. Yet we can sense its presence, as the spiritual source of our lives and of all creation. It is a power that transcends all limitations, all definitions, all actions, feelings, and thoughts. It is the ultimate Truth of G-d's Being.
This light encompasses all existence, physical and spiritual, from a single celled ameba to an African elephant, from a grain of sand to the planet Jupiter, from the demons and angels to the souls of the prophets. For this source of creation no act of man makes the slightest bit of difference. It is the force of unlimited giving without consideration of a human response. You can be a practicing Jew or an atheist. It makes no difference - G-d's light will shine on you and keep you alive. It is called in Hebrew Ohr Yashar - the straightforward light.
The symbol of candlelight is G-d's immanence. It is how He clothes Himself in creation and reveals himself as the living soul of the universe. This light is forever striving upward toward its spiritual source, yet is held below by the fine thread of material existence. This is the caring, personal side of G-d who desires man's service and regards keenly what we do. For a Jew this service means using the physical world and our own talents and abilities to fulfill His Will.
Giving charity, helping a friend, and keeping the Sabbath fuel the flame of G-d's light and make it shine ever brighter in one's soul and in the world. Eating matzah on Passover, shaking the lulav on Succot, and lighting the Hanukah menorah generate the oil that nourishes this godly light and sends it heavenward to find it's home in G-ds's Being. It is called Ohr Chozer, the returning light, and it is our opportunity to participate in the dynamic of creation.
Most people would prefer to bask in the bright sunlight of G-d's benevolence all their lives and never have to give anything back. But as sure as night follows day, there comes a time - the dark night of the soul - when G-d's kindness is hidden and one must light a candle to see the way forward. In the path of the spirit, lighting a candle doesn't depend on what you know or what you believe. It doesn't depend on your title or position. All it takes is to strike the match of humility and to "do" a good deed, not because you want to, but because this deed will light up your soul and send the flame up to the Throne of Glory. In turn G-d responds with a revelation of something even greater than the light of the sun. He gives you Himself. We serve G-d because He is the source of our life and the goal of our passage through time and space. And in the end there is absolutely nothing else.
The Hanuka lights flicker and sputter out and with a sigh you get back to the business of living. But a trace of memory remains. A memory that is engraved in the Jewish soul - a memory of holiness, of revelation, of service, a memory of where we come from, and where we are going. It is a memory of a nation proud of itself. Don't let it go.
Mendel Weinberger is an English teacher and freelance writer who lives in Jerusalem with his wife and six children.
from the December 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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