Many people like to have a different poem or reflection for each night of Hanukkah. I think that’s great, and I also like to just feel into the lights and what they awaken in my soul. My teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, emphasized the importance of contemplating and meditating on the lights of Hanukkah, whether you light candles or olive oil. Here’s what the lights evoke for me, night by night, along with some of the traditional lore for each night:
1. “Light a single candle, rather than curse the darkness.” Pause to look at this candle and consider what light you want to kindle in the world.
2. “Two are better than one.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9) Find a partner to help spread the light, and when needed to be your hevruta (friend, ally) in examining the shadow cast by your light.
3. “The threefold cord is seldom broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:12) Three represents the power of community to me. Where are my people making common cause?
4. Half light and half dark spaces in the menorah. This is a moment of faith. What do I choose to see?
5. Light is overcoming the darkness* and I feel the shift. Traditionally the fifth night is a time to give gelt (not the chocolate coins, but gifts of money). Why money? Because a) the minting of coins symbolizes the sovereignty won by the Maccabees, and b) there is a rabbinic saying that we are all like coins stamped by the divine sovereign, yet each of us is unique. And it seems that this time of year has always been the time to “tip” people who serve others all year long! Finally, this day can’t fall on a Shabbat, so that works out well as money can’t be handled on Shabbat.
(*Yes, Hanukkah is a holiday of light, but that doesn’t mean that dark = bad. Explore the Gateway of Darkness to learn about the strength and power of darkness as the partner of light. Here are some more thoughts on that and a rewritten Hanukkah song from my friend and colleague Rabbi David Seidenberg.)
6. Six days of creation – spreading light through our daily work. We get into the nitty-gritty of making the world better and discover that it’s a gradual, day by day process. The Reform movement has dedicated the sixth night as the “light of tsedakah (righteousness, charity)” a special time to give to others. This day is also Rosh Hodesh, the new moon of the Hebrew month of Tevet.
7. The importance of Shabbat (Sabbath) and rest, especially when working to spread light in the world without getting “burned out.”
When Shabbat seemingly “conflicts” with making the world better, remember that Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches that it’s crucial to pause and have a weekly taste of the world we are trying to create, a “rhythm of redemption.” it’s also the second day of the new moon.
8. The dimension of eternity, the super-natural. Lay the 8 on its side to symbolize infinity. Called “Zot Hanukkah” (this is Hanukkah), this night represents the full expression of dedication and illumination.
It’s also my husband’s Hebrew birthday! He was born at home in the Jewish quarter of Marrakech, Morocco, the fifth of eleven children.
The day after Hanukkah the menorah is dark but I look up to the stars and imagine the lights are ascended to the heavens and visible to inspire us all year. The flame of the Shamash (service candle that lights the others) can be in my heart to serve and light others all year ‘round.