Hanukkah is the Jewish festival of lights. For eight nights, we light the Hanukkiah, a nine-branched candelabra that is used to celebrate the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks and the subsequent rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
This year, the first night of Hannukah will coincide with Christmas eve. It is very meaningful that light is a central element of both holidays. When days are growing short and the air starts to chill, this holiday season invites us to bring light to the world.
Jewish tradition is filled with legends and stories about light and darkness. One of my favorites is the one about a group of rabbinical students who were stressed because they couldn’t end the darkness that filled the room where they regularly studied. To teach them about the power of light, the rabbi told them to come down to the room, take a stick and start hitting the dark to make it go away.
The students, not convinced about the strategy, took a stick and started stirring the dark. As expected, nothing happened. Saddened, they went to the rabbi again. Do not hit, he said, scream to it, thus perhaps the darkness will go away. So this time, they went down to the room and started to shout until they were almost voiceless, but again nothing happened.
With anguish on their faces, the students went back to the rabbi who assured them that this time they would succeed. Go, take a candle, light it up and see what happens, he said. That night, all the students gathered in the dark room, and when the first of them lit a candle, the place slowly began to brighten. When the second candle was lit, and then the third and afterward the fourth, the darkness started to diminish, and when all the students did the same, the darkness finally disappeared.
From this story, we learn that a small candle can give us the necessary light to dissipate darkness and despair. As the rabbi advised his students, a small flame can give warmth and illuminate a dark room.
Fire has a unique characteristic in nature; it is one of the few elements that when transferred doesn’t lose its own essence. When one candle lights the others, it continues to burn and shine. The same is true in our lives. A kind word, a smile, a small act of gratitude can change the lives of others and give us the right perspective on our own existence.
As we move into a new holiday season, and as we intensify our physical and spiritual light, may we realize that life gives us many opportunities every day to learn from it, transforming our experiences, both the painful and the ecstatic ones, into a spiritual way to approach God’s presence in our lives.
Rabbi Marcelo Kormis is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in Fairfield.