Image: Menorah with two candles lit, on the first night. (Photo: NashvilleScene.com)
I love the first night of Chanukah. I love the bravery of the two little lights, the shamash (“helper”) candle and the 1st candle. The dark is so very dark, and those little lights shine brightly against it.
The world has felt like a dark night for so long. Whatever your political persuasion, surely the state of American democracy is distressing. The fact that we cannot even agree on the facts is terrifying. A frightening virus has completely disrupted our lives for nine months, and while a vaccine has been developed (a miracle in itself) the logistics of a just distribution of that vaccine is a daunting prospect. Over 290,000 lie dead from coronavirus in the United States.
Tonight I’m going to take comfort in two little candles. One lights, the other is lit. We never have one without the other. There is never a lone candle in the dark.
In some ways, the shamash is the “extra” candle. It isn’t counted, doesn’t get credit for its light. But it stands for all the helpers out there in the world, who spread the light to others, often without credit for what they do. This year it stands for the healthcare workers, the journalists, the delivery people, the “essential workers” who do their work in danger and often for low pay.
I will remind myself that none of us is ever a lone candle in the dark. There are always other lights, and I will focus my eyes on them as I read the news and make my way through social media. Fred Rogers suggested that the best way to navigate a scary world is to “Look for the helpers.” I’m going to look for the people who are spreading the light.
Chag urim sameach – Happy holiday of lights!
Image: The last candle hung on for three minutes after the rest.
Chanukah is almost over.
When the whole chanukiah is blazing it is a wonderful sight. When several people are over it’s even more amazing – my dining room table aglow!
Once the candles are lit, we play games or talk or just hang out. Halakhicly speaking, we aren’t supposed to do any work by the light of the Chanukah candles. The reality that we may mess up and do something improper is the real reason for the shamash or helper candle. It’s nice to light with it, but its real function is to provide additional light to cover any action that isn’t strictly play.
The candles don’t last long. Chanukah candles come in all sizes, but most of them are designed to burn quickly. We light them, we play, and before we know it, they are out.
Seems to me that one of the lessons of the chanukiah is that every moment in life is a brief moment. If we don’t pay attention to the candles, they will be gone. If we don’t pay attention to the bright things in our lives, we’ll miss them altogether.
Linda and I have a tendency to sit and stare at the candles while they are lit. We chat about whatever is on our minds, but as the candles burn down, we begin to speculate on which will last longer. We watch the little candles as they melt, and as the wax runs all over the foil we put underneath, I begin to wonder uneasily if there are any holes in it. Then I bring my mind back to the here and now: Candles! They don’t last long. Don’t waste them worrying about something that can’t be fixed now.
Life is like that. Moments are here, then they pass. When my children were tiny, the most important lesson they taught me was that nothing lasts: the good things are sooner or later outgrown, and so are the not-so-good things. Colic didn’t last forever. Neither did the babbling I loved so much.
How has your Chanukah been this year? Did the candles bring you any lessons you care to share?
Two great teachers had an argument about lighting the menorah. Shammai argued that we should light all the candles on the first night, and then decrease by one candle each night. Hillel disagreed, saying that we should begin with just one candle. Hillel’s view prevailed. Later his students taught that we light that way because in matters of sanctity, we always increase.
Tonight we will be at the middle point, where light is balanced with the dark. We have seen the lights increase for the past four nights, but there are still as many empty sockets on the lamp as there are candles burning. Chanukah takes its time! We are not allowed to rush, forbidden to light more candles than the day provides.
We are accustomed to speed; Chanukah calls us to slow down. We light the candles, and we may not perform work by their light. So life stops for a little while, and we pay attention to one another, or we play. For eight nights, we have to stop and enjoy ourselves: poor things! We have to stop working!
In the age of smartphones, this is no small thing. Perhaps the best gift of Chanukah is the habit it offers us: for a little while, every night, we pause– to play.
This is a new version of an older post.