I have always wondered about this question in connection to Hanukkah: Why, of all the different vessels in the Temple, does the story of Hanukkah care so much about the menorah? I am sure there were other items in the Temple that had to be fixed or purified. Why do we care so much about the menorah and its lights? Why was that the central manifestation of a miracle? There are other vessels of the Temple, for example, the table for the showbread, the altar for incense or the washstand. Why this emphasis on lights — so much so that we even call the holiday — The Festival of Lights?
Excellent point — the search for the oil truly did take on an almost disproportionate centrality relative to its inherent utility. Many scholars discuss the overzealousness in getting that menorah lit. Additionally, the halachic reality was, ironically, given that all the oil was ritually impure, it might even have been permitted to use impure oil at that time.
Thus, we must assume there is something here beyond the functional; we are in that potent realm of symbol. Those lights on the menorah are unquestionably emblematic of something far greater than the luminance thereof. The light of the menorah, more so than any other vessel, captures our imagination as it most probably did the Maccabees of yore. Not one of us wants to be there when this the paradigmatic light of all lights goes out.
There is something profoundly symbolic about light. It is the very primal of all creations, as in, “Let there be light” fame. To say that light is decidedly metaphorical, both in our tradition and universally, would be an understatement. As such, it speaks to our imagination and kindles sparks in our collective consciousness. We are a people enamored with light; Moshe the Lawgiver’s face beams with light, we address the Almighty lovingly as “our light and salvation, we see ourselves as a “light unto the nations,” and we collectively envision a day when “a new light will shine on Zion.” And our Hanukkah refrain, “light up the night,” speaks to the deepest darkest days of winter when many a culture draws on light motifs to lift the spirit.
Enjoy this panoply of eight lustrous ideas to inform each of your eight nights of Hanukkah. In the spirit of the menorah, which represents all branches and facets of human enlightenment, it draws on a wide-ranging luminescence. By all means use them as a springboard for meaningful conversations over the holiday. Perhaps read and share one each night after the lighting of the candles.
First Night: Spiritual activist Marianne Williamson teaches that “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.” In what way were the Maccabees able to conquer this very human of limitations? In what particular acts can you see their commitment to overcoming “the darkness?” Is there a moment in your own life where you see this teaching reflective of your experience?
Second Night: From Plato we learn: “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” Knowing of the republic’s famous parable of the slaves in the cave whose fate is to never emerge from the darkness into enlightenment, could this possibly mean that we humans are afraid of insight, knowledge and understanding? Is this at all fathomable? Is there anyone in the Hanukkah story who might be accused of being “afraid of the light?” Were you ever fearful of “the light?” Is there a comfort in darkness of ignorance?
Third Night: Leonard Cohen sings hauntingly, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” What is it about being broken that leads to insight? Do you find this to be true? Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach spoke often of the wholeness of the broken heart while classic Lurianic Kabbalah teaches of a world created through the shattering of vessels. In what way does this notion resonate with you? To what aspect of brokenness does the Festival of Light speak? Where in Jewish History have “cracks” allowed the light to shine?
Fourth Night: What does Alan Cohen mean when he says, “Appreciation is the highest form of prayer, for it acknowledges the presence of good wherever you shine the light of your thankful thoughts.” According to Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, the central theme of Hanukkah is Hallel, praise or gratitude with additional prayers, Al Hanisim, “For the Miracles” and of course Hallel being an essential expression of thanksgiving. Why does Cohen equate gratitude with light? What qualities do they share?
Fifth Night: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” writes Anton Chekhov. What is the difference here between telling and showing? Why is one associated with the faraway moon and the other with the broken glass easily accessed? In what way is “showing” indispensable to Jewish tradition? When in your life was telling inadequate, while showing was critical? In what way is showing connected to Hanukkah and the Menorah?
Sixth Night: This might be a personal favorite. “To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark,” taught Victor Hugo. How amazing is it that the word Hanukkah shares the same root with the Hebrew word for education, chinuch? What nuances do the two words share? In what way does education light a spark? In what way is dedication connected to learning? Are there are associations that you can make with the meaning of Hanukkah as in, initiation as per the expression Chanukat HaBayit, and ideas of learning?
Seventh Night: There is a quality of flames that all appreciate and many never tire of pointing out. Unlike most natural phenomena, it is not decreased when it gives to the other. And thus, we are not surprised by this instruction, “if you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it,” shared by Margaret Fuller. Interestingly, it is not surprising that we all commonly share an attribute; have you noticed that as soon as we learn something we have a powerful desire to share it, to tell others about it? Our tradition aptly pictures this as a mother cow desperately wanting to nurse its young. Where in the Hanukkah story do you see this compelling urge to share? Could we possibly extend this powerful concept of giving without losing to other forms of giving, especially in this gift-giving season?
Eighth Night: “Light tomorrow with today,” pithily states Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In what way might we carry the lights of Hanukkah forward through the year? Where do you keep your menorah? Do you see menorahs day in day out in Jewish settings? Why is that? What would it look like to light tomorrow with the Hanukkah candles of today?