One of the most recognized Jewish symbols in the world is the flame of the
It is recognized more than Passover’s bread of
affliction, more than the succa and the four species, and more than the shofar
of the High Holy Days. Indeed, this commandment, which was added to the Jewish
commandments about 2,000 years after the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, became
the one that everyone in the world recognizes and associates with the Jewish
nation. And this is because it faces the public, whereas the other commandments
are performed in private.
What do they convey, these small festival
candles, that awakes such a deep sense of identification among Jews, and
characterizes them among non-Jews? The Talmud tells of a disagreement between
two educational and ideological schools of thought – Beit Hillel and Beit
Shamai. The sages discussed the question of the order in which the festival
candles should be lit.
Should it be in ascending order, one candle on the
first night and eight on the eighth and last night? Or should it be in
descending order, from eight to one? A deep ideological dilemma is concealed
behind this practical deliberation: Where is our heart – in the counting of the
festival days which have already passed, or in anticipation of the days which
have not yet arrived? Should we be marking and celebrating that which exists, or
should we be reminding ourselves of what has not yet been realized? These two
stands have continued to echo in the life of the Jewish nation for 2,000 years,
but for Halacha (Jewish law) purposes the sages agreed with Beit Hillel, who
believed in moderate and gradual ascent, “working our way up.”
it has not been easy to be a Jew during these 2,000 years. It was not easy to
maintain faith under the Roman Empire; to adhere to the eternal covenant under
Christian rule in Europe; to segregate oneself in clothing and appearance under
Muslim rule across Asia and Africa.
But wherever exile’s tortuous route
took it, the Jewish nation lit a candle of hope and faith, “working our way up,”
which flickered in the windows of the home and the soul every year. On the cold
and dark nights of Hanukka, it was this light of hope and faith, this light of
the strong Jewish spirit, this candle that illuminated our
Hanukka candles shone everywhere Jews reached; sometimes in the
open, sometimes hidden; small lights that embodied a big revolution. It is no
wonder, therefore, that these trembling flames became the most recognized Jewish
symbol in the world.
“For out of Zion shall come Torah and the word of
the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3). I send you from here blessings of
Hanukka, the festival of small lights which celebrates the huge light of the
soul and the spirit.
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall.