Lighting the Light

Lessons in hope, courage, purity, and faith, from the Maccabees and the Hanukkah miracles.

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But every day we have to struggle to find that flame; it is far more often lost than found. In silence, in beauty, in prayer, in the example of good people, we rediscover it and may be consoled by the reminder that, though hidden, it is never utterly or irretrievably lost.

Lighting the Flame

Once they had regained the Temple and found their jar of oil, there remained for the Maccabees one more issue: To light, or not to light? It cannot have been a simple decision. They knew, after all, that it would take eight days to replenish their supply and that the contents of the single flask they had would suffice for only one. Should they light it, or should they wait? Perhaps they should wait.

Till now, it had scarcely been their fault that the Menorah was extinguished; it was for this that they had fought. But if they were to light it now and then let it go out, wouldn't they be responsible? After all, the flame, once burning, had to be tamid, constant.

The Maccabees lit the oil.

And light it one must. This is the essence of faith. We never know how long the flame that results from our deeds will last; but if the oil is pure, we must find the courage to use it. It is natural to think that we won't have the energy to see our plans through, to worry that our courage may not last, that our confidence, our spirits, our love, or our faith may fail. These concerns are only human, but it would be wrong to let them prevent us from using what oil we have.

We must trust that what we begin in truth we, and others, will be given the strength to continue. If we first have to know how everything will end, we will never undertake anything, and our oil will go to waste.

Perhaps, it might be argued, the Maccabees were lucky. After all, God ordained a miracle and a single day's supply of fuel burned for eight; but to think like that is, I believe, to misunderstand the nature of such won­ders. For it is a wonder, but true, that such oil always burns more brightly and for longer than we think. Start something with real spirit, and though we may not have the energy to see it through, others will come to replenish the fire and restore the flame.

Thus one person's vision becomes the inspi­ration of many. Or sometimes it is the spirit itself that nurtures us. Then our hope, courage, and energy are replenished night by night as if by some invisible pipette, and we enter our day restored by powers we ourselves do not understand.

For where, whatever our vision, whatever our searching, whatever our courage to light the light, did the first fire come from if not from the One who set the spirit within us and made all life sacred, if only we could see?

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Jonathan Wittenberg

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg serves as rabbi of New North London Synagogue. His other publications include Three Pillars of Judaism: A Search for Faith and Values and The Laws of Life: A Guide to Traditional Jewish Practice at Times of Bereavement.