Fundamentally Freund: A Hanukka gift

Rich or poor, and without regard to the cost of electricity, we continue to reach for the old, premodern technology to celebrate the festival.

oil lamp hanukkia_521 (photo credit: (The Jerusalem Post/File photo))
oil lamp hanukkia_521
(photo credit: (The Jerusalem Post/File photo))
This past week, just in time for the Festival of Lights, I formally joined the green revolution and had long-life lightbulbs installed in my home. These handy little items are a real Hanukka gift: They are highly efficient, consuming less energy and lowering those hefty electric bills, while enjoying a life span far beyond that of ordinary bulbs.
And, perhaps most importantly, they don’t need to be changed as often, so you won’t find yourself twisting and turning those pesky, burned-out lightbulbs every other day of the week. What could be better than that?
As I watched the electrician go about his work, I couldn’t help but think about good ol’ Thomas Edison, who perfected the technology that has brought so much light into people’s lives. In fact, it was 131 years ago this month that Edison put on his first public demonstration of an incandescent light bulb in Menlo Park, New Jersey.
It was one of those turning points in modern history, a milestone that separates the Age of the Candle from the Age of the Switch. We of course take it for granted that these silly little glass concoctions do what they do, infusing our existence with so much meaning and purpose, from evening concerts to walks in the park to Monday Night Football. But for most of mankind’s history, just lighting up a room was no small matter.
Indeed, Edison was keenly aware of this, and he got so swept up in the moment that he is said to have remarked, “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”
And while that prediction has largely come to pass, candles nonetheless continue to play a key role in our lives, as we witness this week when we celebrate Hanukka.
FOR A period of eight days, Jews around the world gather in their homes each evening together with their loved ones, and kindle the candles (or oil lamps) which recall the miracles that were performed for our people during the great Hasmonean revolt two millennia ago.
Rich or poor, and without regard to the cost of electricity, we continue to reach for the old, premodern technology as a means of celebrating the festival.
The obvious question that arises is: why? Why can’t we take Edison’s miracle and apply it to our own, deploying electrical hanukkiot rather than the low-tech equivalent? After all, lighting candles seems so oddly quaint nowadays, something more suitable to intimate romantic restaurants or the like. What do candles offer us that a flashing new fluorescent bulb does not?
The answer, I think, is quite a lot.
One of the great challenges of modern life is finding meaning in the past. We are so far removed from history, so focused on the here and now, that it can be difficult at times to fully appreciate what prior events have to offer.
The use of candles, or oil lamps, reconnects us in a very tangible way with the times of old, symbolically underlining our link to our ancestors and what they experienced. By reaching for the very same things which they used to celebrate the holiday, we are attaching ourselves to them and our history in a significant and meaningful way.
Moreover, the lights at Hanukka are meant to symbolize the triumph of our resilience and determination along with our faith in God and His promises of redemption. And what could possibly better represent the tenacity of Jewish existence, the power of our will to live, than those stubborn little candles standing ramrod straight, giving off light regardless of their surroundings?
Throughout the centuries, whether in the depths of Siberia or the hell of Nazi Europe, Jews risked their lives to kindle these lights. By striking a match and igniting that wick, we are declaring our fidelity to tradition and to their memory. So here’s hoping that even as we celebrate the miracles of old, we will soon merit to witness those of our own.