Note from Rabbi Weber: as I thought about our upcoming celebration of Hanukkah, I remembered something I wrote in 1990. Its message is still important, and I hope it adds meaning to your holiday… and your Jewish journey.
It is Friday evening, and the mother of tomorrow's Bat Mitzvah walks proudly to the bima to light the candles. She reads the words beautifully, with grace and dignity. She strikes the match and touches its flame to the end of each candle's wick. As she closes her eyes to recite the prayer, the congregation watches as the flames burn along the length of the two wicks. She opens her eyes just in time to see the flames reach the base of the wicks, sputter briefly, and disappear in a wisp of dark smoke. Having said the beracha, and facing her family, friends and two wickless, unlit candles, she wonders why she ever had children.
Since this is the Season of Lights, I thought it would be the right time to present a short lesson on candle lighting – to avoid such traumatic experiences either in temple or at home. It is really very simple to light the candles and keep them lit, but only if you know the secret.
The secret is this: When you light the candles, do not just touch the match to the end of the wick; all that does is light the little string, which will burn out when it reaches the wax. Instead, place the match next to the wick, near the top of the candle itself. Hold it there for a while, until the candle wax begins to melt and feed the flame. This way, you start the candle burning – which is the purpose of the whole endeavor. It takes a few moments longer, but it saves trying to dig more wick out of the candle with your fingernail!
I never thought much of this little secret until a friend, Rabbi Jeff Miller of Congregation Sons of Israel, taught me about the special connection between candles and Jews. He, too, noticed the tendency of people to shove the match toward the wick and then move on as soon as it begins to burn. He, too, realized that the only way to keep the candle burning was to bring the flame closer and hold it there for a while. And, he said, it is the same for Jews: if we want the fire of Judaism to burn brightly inside us, we need to get close to its source for more than one brief moment at a time.
What kind of "Jewish fire" would we want to have burning inside us? For some, it is pride – pride in our accomplishments, pride in Israel, pride in the heritage of the Maccabees. For others it is ruach, spirit – the warmth we feel when we share in ages-old songs, traditions, and prayers. And for others it is neshama, the glow of a Jewish soul, which affects the way we live and see the world. For most of us it is the fire we hope to pass on to our children and grandchildren, as Olympic runners transfer the flame from one to another, so it may travel farther and longer than any one person can carry it. However we imagine the fire, we can only make use of it when we get it burning properly.
To insure that our flame is lit properly, and will not just flare up for a moment before dying out, we must remember the secret of the candles: get close to the flame, and stay there for a while. Is it sufficient to brush by the flame once or twice a year, hoping that the “match” of a Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur service will be enough? Can we start a strong, roaring fire by simply carpooling our kids to religious school? Is it enough to light the Hanukkah candles and give presents, without telling the story – and all the stories the Maccabees fought to preserve? Think of the candles....
Each candle on the Hanukkah menorah is important and different. Each must be lit in its own special way; each burns at its own speed; each has its own style and beauty. So is each one of us different – and important. The same “fire” will not kindle the same glow within each of us, but each Jewish soul adds light and life to our people and our world. We need only make sure that our fires, like the Shabbat candles, have the chance to take hold and burn.
May the warmth and sweetness of this Hanukkah season inspire each of us to come a little closer, stay a little longer, and feel a little more deeply, the fire and passion which is our heritage. This, truly, is our Eternal Light.
Rabbi Don Weber