(Courtesy: Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes)
(learned from Rabbi Cheryl Peretz)
There is wonderful Hasidic story, told of a conversation between the rabbi and a member of his community. The man once asked: “Rabbi, what is a Jew’s task in this world?” The rabbi answered: “A Jew is a lamp-lighter on the streets of the world. In olden days, there was a person in every town who would light the gas street lamps with a light he carried on the end of a long pole. On the street corners, the lamps sat, ready to be lit. A lamp-lighter has a pole with a flame supplied by the town. He knows that the fire is not his own and he goes around lighting the lamps on his route.” The man then asked: “But what if the lamp is in a desolate wilderness?” The rabbi responded: “Then, too, one must light it. Let it be noted that there is a wilderness and let the wilderness be shamed by the light.” Not satisfied, the man asked: “But what if the lamp is in the middle of the sea?” The rabbi responded: “Then one must take off one’s clothes, jump into the water, and light it there!”
“And that is the Jew’s mission?” asked the man. The rabbi thought for a long moment and finally responded: “Yes, that is a Jew’s calling.” The man continues – “But rabbi, I see no lamps.” The rabbi responds: “That is because you are not yet a lamp-lighter.”
So, the man inquires: “How does one become a lamplighter?” The rabbi’s answer this time? One must begin by preparing oneself, cleansing oneself, becoming more spiritually refined, then one is able to see the other as a source of light, waiting to be ignited. When, heaven forbid, one is crude, then one sees but crudeness; but, when one is spiritually noble, one sees the nobility everywhere.”
How can We Prepare Ourselves to be Lamp-lighters?
First, see the candles for what they may represent:
Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz teaches:
Traditional Chanukah lights had three elements: oil, wick and fire. The fire ignites the wick, and the oil (or, today, the wax candle) provides fuel for a continuous flame.
To succeed in any endeavor, we need the same three elements: The creative spark (the flame) , that must be given form (the wick), and the form must be given sustenance (the oil or wax). The Hebrew words for flame, wick and oil are נר (ner), פתיל (petil) and שמן (shemen).
Taken together, the first letters of each word–נ (nun), פ (phey) and ש (shin)–form the Hebrew word נפש (nefesh), or soul.
A candle is a symbol of the soul. To prepare ourselves, let us pay attention to each element as we kindle the Chanukah lights: the creative spark of the flame, the wick that gives form to the flame, and the oil that keeps the flame alive.
Next, Be Attentive to the Soul Within
Rabbi Jonathan Slater teaches:
The miracle of Chanukah – according to the Talmud, and as emphasized by Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev – was that the single cruse of oil lasted for eight days. Those ancient Maccabees looked at the container of oil and, based on their previous experience, decided that it was sufficient for only one day. They decided that there the container did not have the capacity to keep the flame burning for more than one day. Then they experienced its persistence as a miracle. They learned of the power of the Holy One in that manner.
Similarly, we look at ourselves (and others) and, based on previous experience – based on personal preference, fear, bias, hope, anxiety, or need – we determine what we (or they) can or cannot do. Then, something else happens, beyond what had been expected, and we learn of God’s power.
Similarly, when we light a candle, we expect it to stay lit as it burns, and we expect that it will finally burn out. What we often fail to notice is that in each moment that it is burning, something is actually happening. We note the beginning and the end, and say “Well, we lit it and now it’s done” yet we miss the middle, the time when its existence, when the interaction of wax, wick and flame produce light and heat, demonstrates God’s sustaining, enlivening power. And, so too do we miss so much in our lives.
Take Time to Contemplate
Tonight, take some time after you light the candles to examine then. Use this time to notice each miraculous moment of their existence. Hold your attention in them as they burn. Attend each moment. Notice each flicker, each crackle, each plume of smoke. Then open yourself to the possibility that there are miraculous moments within your own existence as well. In this way, you become your own lamp-lighter.
This Chanukah, may your soul shine brightly in all the in-between moments. This Chanukah, may your life become a candle that illuminates the miraculous in your world.