By Beth Huppin. Beth is the Director of JFS Project Kavod/Dignity the Jewish education program at JFS. She has enjoyed teaching Judaics to children and adults of all ages in both formal and informal settings for over 30 years. She is the recipient of a 2010 National Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.
Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, begins this Sunday evening. Lighting candles is the central ritual for this holiday, a reminder of the story of a small cruse of oil lasting for eight days in the rededicated Temple Menorah. The candles and the rules about lighting them help us think more deeply about the holiday and about the work of Jewish Family Service.
For example, the candles of Chanukah are not intended to be used for “normal” illumination. Since we enjoy their beauty, but do not “use” the light for the functional purpose of physical sight, what is the point of lighting these candles? Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905, also known as the Sefat Emet), one of the last great Hasidic masters of Polish Hasidism, points to the Torah story of creation as a way to understand the power and meaning of the Chanukah lights.
He understands the original light created on the first day, before the light of the sun, moon and stars (day 4) as a Spiritual/Eternal/Divine light. According to Jewish lore, Adam and Eve experienced that Divine Light for thirty-six hours before they were expelled from Eden. After they left Eden, that Light was hidden within our material world, a world that often contains emotional and spiritual darkness.
On Chanukah, the total number of candles we light for the 8 days is thirty-six. (This doesn’t count the Shamash candles which are used each day to light the Chanukah candles.) The thirty-six Chanukah candles remind us of the thirty-six hours in which the Divine Light was revealed and readily available to Adam and Eve.
We light the candles of Chanukah during the depth of winter darkness, a metaphor for inner darkness in our world. Each day, as we add another candle, we remember the possibility of accessing that original Light. That Light is a source of strength, hope and wisdom, but it is often hidden from view, caught in our “dark” experiences that elicit fear, sorrow and anger. The Chanukah lights remind us that when we decide to enter those legitimately difficult emotions and experiences with curiosity and with an open heart, it is possible to discover the Light hidden within us and within others. We choose the Light of Hope, even within darkness.
At JFS we attempt to be like the Chanukah candles, standing next to each other, illuminating one another, but not consuming each other. We attempt to see and be seen as uniquely valuable, resilient and capable, one person at a time, each of us containing internal and beautiful Divine light. We don’t “use” the light within others for any functional purpose, just as we don’t “use” the light of Chanukah for the functional purpose of sight. Rather, in lighting the Chanukah candles we remember the value and possibility of that Greater Light within each of us—not as a flame that will consume others but as a beacon of hope and healing in whatever darkness we experience.
Exploring Dignity Classes at JFS: Every month JFS volunteers, staff members, board members and friends discuss Jewish texts related to the work of JFS. A recent class focused on the topic Chanukah: How Might We be a Light for Each Other? The above is a taste of the issues discussed in that class. With appreciation to Rabbi Jonathan Slater and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS). Rabbi Slater taught this Sefat Emet text as part of the 20th anniversary celebration of IJS. You can access his teaching and the entire 20th anniversary celebration here.