Get a Glow On

Finding the deeper meaning in the Chanukah lights helps us connect with the best in ourselves. 

This story comes from the JW archives.

by Robin K. Levinson

By Bangin (Own work) [ GFDL ,  CC-BY-SA-3.0  or  CC BY 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons

By Bangin (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Every year at Chanukah, storyteller Joy Leslie Gordon was accustomed to doing all the usual things—lighting the candles, singing the blessings, making latkes and getting together with friends to exchange gifts.

"It was festive and wonderful, but there had to be more," she says. "I needed to find a deeper meaning. What messages were encoded in its celebration to help me grow on my spiritual path?"

Trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together, Gordon began to read, listen to tapes on spirituality, and consult experts. She found that connecting to the light of Chanukah enabled her to tap into the light inside herself. Whenever a negative thought arose, she focused instead on what made her happy. "I started to become happier, lighter. People started to notice. It was transforming my life and my relationships.

"As Jews, this light is part of who we are," says Gordon. "Our mission is to recognize it and to use it to impact the world in positive ways. This holiday, in its seeming simplicity, stands as a metaphor for our role as individuals and as a people: to be a light unto the nations' reflecting God's light."

The "light" Gordon refers to is, of course, not literal. She is talking about the light created when God said "Let there be light" on the first day of creation—the spiritual light that existed before the sun, moon and stars were created on the fourth day, according to Genesis. It's our inner light that brings holiness into the mundane and enables us to overcome the odds to help repair the world. More than 2,000 years ago, that same light empowered the Maccabees to fight for their religious freedom.

"Light is the overarching, central, definitive metaphor for Jewish understanding of all of reality," says Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf, whose books include Chanukah: Eight Nights of Light, Eight Gifts for the Soul. "Light in Judaism is so pervasive that it's almost overlooked, like the air we breathe. But once you stop and look, then all of a sudden you say, 'Wow. It's everywhere!'"

Words of Light

by Robin K. Levinson

One indication of the importance of light in Judaism is the number of Hebrew words that mean or refer to light. "It's like snow' for Eskimos," quips Rabbi Paula Goldberg of Newtown, Pa. 

The simplest word, ohr, is used in the creation story. Uses of ohr in Torah include yotzeir ohr (creator of light), me'orot (lights of the sun and moon) and orah v'simcha (light and gladness, from the Book of Esther). Ohr is also sometimes used as a synonym for joy. 

Aish means "fire" but also can mean "light" or "flame." Aish is used in phrases like "flame of romance" and "flame of memory." Goldberg says the flame of the yahrzeit candle symbolizes the fact that even though your loved one is deceased, his or her memory continues to light your path in life. The flickering of the yahrzeit candle also is a metaphor for life's transience. 

A Hebrew adjective, baheir, technically means clarity but also can be used to describe a person with a bright or sunny disposition. 
The root word bezek forms a verb that means to "flash" or "emit a bright light." Israel's phone company is called Bezek. 

Ziv (rhymes with "leave") means "radiance" or "brightness." In Midrash, there's an image of the "world to come" in which the righteous will no longer have to eat, drink or fulfill other physical needs, but instead "will sit and bask in the ziv shechina"—the radiance of God's presence. Another Midrash story describes Moses descending Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments with ziv panim—"radiance in his face." 

Goldberg explains that in the Bible, the glory of God is something visible, like the pillar of fire that lights up the night for the Israelites as they wander through the desert. "When Moses encounters God's glory on Sinai, he is changed forever. As a matter of fact, he veils his face from that point on because the brightness frightens people," she says. This has been interpreted to mean that we can receive only a little bit of Torah wisdom at a time, because if we receive it all at once, it can overwhelm us. 

Light is an important image in other religions as well. "Jews don't have a corner on the market, but we certainly have a good handle in the market of using light and light metaphors," says Goldberg. "We've got ourselves all wrapped up in light.”

Rabbi Paula Goldberg, rabbinic scholar at Congregation Shir Ami in Newtown, Pa., and Rabbi Shirah Joseph, (then-associate rabbi at Shir Ami and now Congregation Sha'aray Shalom in Hingham, Mass.) recognized this when they were trying to pick a date to honor their adult-education students.

Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, they decided, would be the perfect time because the word Chanukah is derived from chinuch—the same Hebrew root word for both "dedication" and "education." Ideas started flying, and the rabbis conceived of a whole ceremony based on "light and enlightenment as an education image."

"Then something just clicked in our collective heads," Goldberg relates. "There are a lot of other metaphors for light, and we started popping them out: light as inspiration, light as a symbol of God's presence, light as a symbol of hope. We realized there's something more here than just a simple celebration; this was a whole yearlong course."

Light seems to infuse everything Jewish, both literally and metaphorically. In the Bible, references to light appear no fewer than 36 times; and the Psalms contain hundreds of light references. The very name Zohar, Judaism's main mystical text, means "shine" or "glow." Light plays a significant part in our daily and holiday rituals, from the candle-lighting ceremonies that usher in the major Jewish holidays, to the Havdalah ceremony that concludes the Shabbat, to the Yahrzeit candles we burn for 24 hours to commemorate the death of a loved one.

The number of Hebrew words that mean or refer to light is yet another reflection of the importance of light in Judaism (see below). That's without even venturing into the vast realm of stories—Midrashim—both ancient and modern, or Judaic art, where light also casts its considerable glow. 

Each expression, says Apisdorf, is a manifestation of the primordial light, the light of God. "It's like a light going through a prism and being broken out into different colors," he says. "If it's coming through a holiday, a mitzvah, or lighting candles, it's the same light bouncing into the world and being refracted through a different means. We pick it up and experience it in different ways. But it's really all the same light."

In Jewish mysticism, this primordial light—what cosmologists might call the Big Bang—is synonymous with God, or ein sof, "a boundless, endless light," says Rabbi Daniel Matt, author of numerous books on Jewish mysticism. A more familiar image from the Zohar involves the overwhelming energy of God's light shattering the vessel that held it and scattering into countless "holy sparks" that spread throughout the universe. The mystical tradition of "raising the holy sparks" refers to the Jewish mandate of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

"Light is such a large theme, especially in Jewish mysticism but also in Jewish philosophy," says Judith R. Baskin, Ph.D., Philip H. Knight Professor of Humanities at the University of Oregon. "When you think about many of the major trends in Jewish history, they were, in a sense, enlightenments—opening the eyes" to new knowledge and understanding.

One of those trends was the birth of the Reform Movement in 19th-century Germany. The most meaningful light metaphor to that generation was the prophecy in the Book of Isaiah that Israel would be a "light unto the nations," Baskin says. "Jews and Judaism were criticized by non-Jews as being a kind of sordid, almost immoral tradition. So, all of 19th-century German Judaism, including modern Orthodoxy, had an apologetic mission: to demonstrate that, in fact, Jews had a noble historical, religious and literary tradition, and that far from being a negative community, Jews had a larger mission in the world—to be a moral example of light unto the nations.' "

Baskin, the daughter of a Reform rabbi, remembers growing up hearing "light unto the nations" in a responsive reading each week, when a female congregant lit Shabbat candles at her father's synagogue. Lighting Shabbat candles is one of three commandments specifically associated with women in the rabbinic tradition. 

In the synagogue sanctuary, above the Torah ark, is another light—the ner tamid, known as the eternal light. "Ner actually means a lamp, so ner is a much more physical source of light, although it's used metaphorically in Psalms, where it talks about the soul of man being the lamp of God," Goldberg points out.

The ner tamid is said to symbolize the menorah from the Temple of ancient Israel. This seven-branched menorah, in turn, is considered a symbol of Jews' moral mandate to share the knowledge of Torah with the world. The menorah is modeled after the vision described in Zechariah of God revealing a golden candelabrum and saying, "Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit." The sages interpreted this to mean that light is a gentle force, that Israel is to enlighten the nations through peaceful measures, not violent ones, Goldberg says.

The nine-branched Chanukah menorah, or chanukkiah, is an adaptation of the Temple menorah. The most common explanation for lighting the chanukkiah is to commemorate the triumph of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks' attempt to extinguish their faith, and the rabbinic story of a single day's worth of oil that miraculously burned for eight days in the war-torn Temple in 165 BCE.

But many Jews see much more in the dancing of the Chanukah lights. "At Chanukah, as you watch the flames shoot up, it's hope, it's transcendence," says Matt. The religious mandate to display the chanukkiah in the window is a way of sharing God's light with others. "The Festival of Light is held at the darkest time of year, so that concept of going from darkness to light is relevant there too," he adds.

Like Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, Chanukah provides an opportunity to shine the light of Torah into the world by making moral choices, attaining and sharing knowledge, or giving to charity. "There is an ever-present opportunity on all days to spread light, but holidays are uniquely intense opportunities," says Apisdorf.

Chanukah, he says, has an important message for world, especially today. "For good reasons, people can feel like the world is a dark place, and sometimes getting darker," Apisdorf says.

"It's scary times that we're living in." But one good deed is like the light of a single Chanukah candle making everything visible in a pitch-black room. "Discovering our inner light and finding ways to manifest it can have a much more profound impact—on ourselves and on the world around us—than we generally realize." 

Robin K. Levinson is a journalist who lives in Hamilton, N.J.