Keeping the Light by Rabba Claudia Marbach

Hanukkah has come and gone but the darkest days of winter are still ahead. Although one cannot schedule miracles, I sometimes wish that Hanukkah would fall in late January. I need an infusion of light, hope and miracles when winter has dragged on and the white snow has turned grey. How do we hold on to the light for the rest of winter? How do we contain within us the closeness to God symbolized by those little, yet miraculous, lights?

One way is to cultivate the light within. Mishlei 20:27 tells us

נֵר ה’ נִשְׁמַת אָדָם חֹפֵשׂ כָּל־חַדְרֵי־בָטֶן׃  

The candle of God is the soul of a person, revealing all his inmost parts.

The Sefat Emet uses this pasuk to connect the lights of Hanukkah to the candle used to search for chametz before Pesach. (I know that it’s a bit early to think about Pesach, but bear with me!)

Before Pesach we use a candle to search for hidden chametz. The Sefat Emet likens chametz to sins – things we want to expunge. So too, he suggests, we should use the candles on Hanukkah to look for what is hidden and not wanted. He says that when it is dark we need the light even more than usual. While we think of Hanukkah as a  time when we spread the light from inside to outside. By connecting those lights to the search for chametz, the Sefat Emet, urges us to use the lights to inspect the internal, and to illuminate any darkness that we may find there. What should that inspection look like? The Sefat Emet notes that Ner (candle) can be read as an acronym for nefesh + ruach (spirit + soul). We should examine our nefesh and ruach. Three months on, let us reexamine our Rosh Hashanah resolutions and rededicate ourselves to those resolutions. Let us look to the health of our nefesh + ruach. We can use the candles to look internally and carry the light of the Hanukkah candles through the winter.  

After Hanukkah we quickly transition to the fast of Asarah b’Tevet. How strange that we celebrate the dedication of the Temple and only a week later we be thrust into mourning for that same Temple. But those two truths are fundamental to us as Rabbinic Jews. We mourn the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. Yet that destruction was the direct precursor to the rabbinic revolution that made Judaism what it is today—and has us celebrate Hanukkah as a rededication holiday and not a military victory. With the loss of the Beit HaMikdash and subsequent exile, we came to reinterpret the pasuk

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם׃ (Exodus 25:8)

 And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

The substitution of the Mikdash became the synagogue. Rav Chaim of Volozhin, in Nefesh haChaim 1:4, said further that God hinted that  

שממנו תראו וכן תעשו אתם את עצמיכם שתהיו אתם במעשיכם הרצויים כתבנית המשכן וכליו. כולם קדושים ראוים ומוכנים להשרות שכינתי בתוככם ממש

That you should know that the purpose of my desire in building the Mishkan … that you should see and then you should create for yourselves with the blueprint of the Mishkan. That you are all holy and can facilitate My truly ‘living within you’.

Rav Chaim says that we carry that Mishkan with us. Another way to keep the lights of Hanukkah burning is to take the memory of the Ner Tamid that shone in the Temple and relight it within us. What does it mean to make a Mikdash inside of ourselves? Surely to make our lives more holy, to dedicate ourselves to our relationship with God — keeping our  inner Mishkan well lit.

Placing the Hanukkah lights to face outward is an essential part of the mitzvah. How do we light up the outside world?  Yeshayahu 58:10 gives us direction on how to spread the light beyond ourselves:

תָפֵק לָרָעֵב נַפְשֶׁךָ וְנֶפֶשׁ נַעֲנָה תַּשְׂבִּיעַ וְזָרַח בַּחֹשֶׁךְ אוֹרֶךָ וַאֲפֵלָתְךָ כַּצָּהֳרָיִם

And if you draw out your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall your light rise in darkness, and your gloom be as the noonday…

Yeshayahu says that our lights will shine brighter when we help others who are hungry or afflicted. Like the pirsuma d’nissa of Hanukkah, acts of chesed are a way of spreading the light. The light of one flame is not diminished when it is used to light another. With all the suffering in the world it seems incumbent upon us to share our light.

During the long months of winter to come, we can continue to think about how we all can keep the Hanukkah  lights shining. Let’s keep alive the lights of introspection, holiness and mitzvot and good deeds, within ourselves, our communities and the world around us.

 

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