Posted on January 5, 2017 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
When we light candles, we usually do so to enjoy their light. We put tapers on the table to set the mood for a lovely dinner. Shabbat candles are intended to light up our homes, to dispel the darkness, so we will have “light and joy,” “ora v’simcha,” when we gather to celebrate. Light is a tool that enables us to see in the dark. But in Jewish tradition there is at least one exception to this rule, the lights of Chanukah. No sooner do we light the Chanukah candles than we declare them to be holy, kodesh, not to be used. They are not to light up the room, to read by, nor to serve any utilitarian purpose. They are to be placed by the doorpost of our homes (or in the window) to shine out into the world.
Rabbi Aryeh Ben David asks, would we cook a meal and not eat it? Would we sew a garment and not wear it? Isn’t it equally absurd, he asks, to light candles and to refrain from using their light?
The truth is that Chanukah lights do serve a purpose, just not a selfish one. Their light shines outward into the world as a statement of faith and hope. They declare that redemption will yet come to the world, as it has in the past in ways great and small. They represent the light of God that cannot be extinguished; not by hate, oppression or exploitation. God made us to be free, and like the Chanukah lights, our value lies not in what we do, but in our very being. All life is sacred. There is a spark of divinity in every human soul. Redemption will come to the world when we see that light and embrace that truth. This is the miracle that we announce to the world when we light the chanukiah and place it in the window. This is why the lights of Chanukah are holy, and why we refrain from using them for any other purpose.
But there is one light on the chanukiah that serves a utilitarian purpose. The shamash, the candle we light first and then use to light the others, makes an important symbolic statement. It reminds us that the light of redemption is not kindled by itself. It needs to be lit. And once it is, it can be spread widely and freely without diminishing its own light. This is our task: to be the shamash, to make the light grow from day to day, just as the Chanukah lights grow brighter on each subsequent day of the festival.
As we begin a new secular year, may we bring the light of holiness into our daily lives by the goodness and kindness we do. May we see the light of God in ourselves and in all people. And may we merit seeing the dawning of the light of redemption speedily and in our own day.
Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
Originally published in the January-February 2017 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives