“Your Light is Lifting Me Higher”
By Rabbi Danielle Upbin
This may come as a surprise, but the art of “page calling” in communal prayer, along with the requisite “please rise”/ “please be seated” is not part of clergy education. Some parishioners tolerate the interruption because it helps them follow along in the service. Others find it to be an odious aspect of ritual.
A congregant of mine overcame his annoyance by reinterpreting the cues: “Please rise” became a spiritual directive, as in – “rise up and elevate your spirit”. “Be seated” became a reminder to contemplate and restore a sense of inner peace.
“Rising in spirit” has direct impact on our Hanukkah observance as well. The Talmud (Babylonian Tractate Shabbat 21b) records a dispute between Hillel and Shammai regarding the proper way to light the Hanukkiya (the Hanukkah candelabra):
The Sages taught in a baraita: The basic mitzva of Hanukkah is each day to have a light kindled by a person, the head of the household, for him/herself and their household. And the mehadrin, i.e., those who are meticulous in the performance of mitzvot, kindle a light for each and every one in the household. And the mehadrin min hamehadrin, who are even more meticulous, adjust the number of lights daily. Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree as to the nature of that adjustment. Beit Shammai say: On the first day one kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last day of Hanukkah, he kindles one light. And Beit Hillel say: On the first day one kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases the number of lights until, on the last day, he kindles eight lights.
The text continues to add several arguments in support of both sides of the debate, concluding that the law is in accordance with Beit Hillel:
The reason for Beit Hillel’s opinion is that the number of lights is based on the principle: One elevates to a higher level in matters of sanctity and one does not downgrade. Therefore, if the objective is to have the number of lights correspond to the number of days, there is no alternative to increasing their number with the passing of each day. (Translation: William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org)
Remarkably, as inheritors of Hillel’s rule, we are all mehadrin min hamehadrin, the best of the best, the ones who are “the most meticulous” in their candle lighting practice. That is, most of us add a candle to our Hanukkiya each night. The challenge is to think about the ways in which we can do more than just add candles to our Hanukkiya. Light is symbolic in most cultures and it holds true for Judaism as well. As we light our candles this year, I invite you to discover the symbolic meaning of the light in your life. How does the candlelight enrich your spiritual perception? Each night the candles illuminates a little more blessing in the dark of winter, pointing toward the ways in which we can aspire to cultivate deeper self-awareness. What might that expanding light mean for you this season?
One of my favorite aspects of lighting the Hanukkiya at home is seeing my family’s faces glowing in the candlelight. The light not only makes for great photographs. It draws me into a space of gratitude. Taking time each night for the candles and for each other is a tradition that bind us together from generation to generation. My kids may look back and remember the presents they did or didn’t receive that year (After all, I still remember the “Barbie Dream House” I asked for and never got). But I hope they will also cherish the light that I see dancing in their eyes.
I am drawn to the idea that the eight distinct flames of the Hanukkiya share a single power source – the shamash or “the helper candle”. The strength of the shamash is that it provides light to each wick without depleting its own resources. We are each a shamash, a leader and helper, capable of sharing our blessings without burning out or giving up. At the same time, we each also receive from the Source – capable of being “lit up” in the variety of ways in which we find our own inspiration and voice. The increasing light of the Hanukkiya reminds us that we are each a candle of God, sharing knowledge and acts of love – living out the great miracle of our lives with gratitude and pride.
May each of us be blessed, at any age, “to increase in holiness”, to lift ourselves and each other up higher, just like the candles of the Hanukkah ritual. May the light that shines from within us grow throughout the holiday and for years to come.