Chanukah, unlike many other Jewish holidays, is basically a one-note song. The one ritual required, aside from a few changes to the liturgy, is lighting candles. Sure, many of us exchange gifts, eat deep-fried treats and gamble chocolate coins in high-stakes dreidel stand-offs. But from the tradition's perspective, it's all about the candles. If Passover is the season of freedom and Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, Chanukah is the holiday of fire.
That is important to keep in mind, because the rituals associated with all holidays are meant to invite us to see ourselves in ways different from the rest of the year. On Passover, we have a seder, a ritualized telling of the story of our freedom. Through this, the tradition encourages us to see ourselves as actors in that drama and remake ourselves — intellectually, ethically, emotionally and spiritually — in the image of that story.
On Chanukah, where the obligatory ritual is to make fire, we're invited to remake ourselves in the image of fire.
The Sages of ancient Israel articulate this succinctly in a short passage from the Babylonian Talmud that is the sole reference to Chanukah in rabbinic literature: "Mitzvat Chanukah ner ish u'veito (the obligatory practice for Chanukah is a candle for every person and his household.)" Contextually, this means that a household needs to have only one candle lit each night of the holiday.
Of course, most of us light an additional candle each night, and many of us are accustomed to each person lighting his or her own chanukiah, making us what the Talmud calls the "mehadrin min ha-mehadrin," people who take special care in beautifying their Jewish religious practice. But the essential talmudic practice, the most basic obligation, is one person, one candle.
Read creatively, though, the rabbis are articulating something far more profound: The obligatory practice for Chanukah is for every person and his or her household to be a candle.
After I light the candles, after I recite the blessings and sing the songs, I always take a moment to linger and watch the flames. As I watch, I marvel at the fire. Attached to the wick below, the flame reaches upward. The flame defies gravity. It looks as if it yearns to float away. At the same time, however, it clings to its source, remaining rooted. The flame always reaches above, but it never grasps hold of the heavens long enough to leave the wick.
The image reminds me of the famous biblical story about Jacob's ladder, which, coincidentally, we read each year right after the start of the month of Kislev, during which we celebrate Chanukah. In that story, the patriarch Jacob runs away from home, afraid for his life. On his journey, he lays down to sleep and dreams of a ladder "set on the ground, its top reaching toward the sky," with angels ascending and descending it.
The similarities between ladder and candles are striking. Unless the ladder is fixed on the earth, it cannot stand long enough to reach toward the sky. The Torah teaches that, similarly, without strong roots, we cannot have the strength to grow and surpass ourselves. At the same time, the ladder's top was not in the sky but perpetually reaching toward it. God beckons us to keep reaching; even if we never attain our ideal, we must always keep stretching.
In the Jacob story, angels are in constant motion on the ladder. Similarly, in order to flourish we must reach out and in, up and down, finding balance through holding on to both polarities.
If lighting the Chanukah candles urges every person, figuratively, to become a candle, then the ritual is beckoning us to live this holy tension in multiple dimensions of our lives. Can we try to reach higher and surpass ourselves while retaining a firm sense of who we are? Can we yearn for that which is outside ourselves while recognizing the value we possess within?
Can we long for something more while remaining able to count the blessings we have? Can we live in the world of the spirit and simultaneously embrace the benefits of material reality? Can we recognize the necessity of engaging the physical world in cultivating a spiritual life and simultaneously realize that spiritual sensitivities help us successfully navigate our world and our lives?
This Chanukah, I invite you to see your candles as models for your inner life. As you light them, take a moment to reflect, to illuminate and, perhaps, to ignite within you your own spark for personal transformation.
Rabbi Michael Knopf is assistant rabbi at Har Zion Temple.