The True Fire of Hanukkah
Fire is an alluring natural phenomenon when it is not manifesting in destructive ways. In a controlled environment, fire is one of Judaism’s main metaphors for God’s Presence, particularly when it comes to holy vessels.
In Jewish tradition, human beings are considered holy vessels, much like the Tabernacle and Temples that once stood. Exodus 25:8 reads, “make me a sanctuary and I will dwell within you.” Rashi notes that the verse says God will dwell within human beings, not within the constructed elements of the Tabernacle or Temple. According to our tradition, human beings are the ultimate vehicles of holiness. In essence, God’s presence is found in each and every one of us in the form of a soul, as the book of Proverbs states, “a fire (lamp) of the Lord in the soul of man…”
Frequently, we find this verse written on yartzheit candles. As we remember our loved ones, the flame of the candle reminds us of the existence of the soul and its immutable, holy nature. In fact, every Jewish ritual involving fire is meant to draw attention to our souls, the holy spark of light within each of us. The flame of the Shabbat candles draws our attention to the neshamah yeteirah, the additional soul that visits us each Shabbat, increasing our spiritual potential. The havdalah candle reminds us that our enlarged spiritual potential is fleeting but will return again next week.
So what is the psycho-spiritual purpose of the Hanukkah candles?
According to Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, a 19th Century Hasidic master known as the Sefas Emes, the flames of the Hanukkah candles are meant to assist us in tapping into the hidden light within ourselves. Their purpose is to draw our attention inward as we contemplate the essential theme of the holiday—rededication.
Under the yoke of Hellenistic decrees, the Jewish soul was dampened until only a tiny flicker of fire remained. After the struggles and battles against the Assyrians, our people had almost no strength left to attain wholeness. As the story goes, they found a cruse of oil enough for one day that lasted for eight. However, the miracle of the burning oil is only a symbol. The true miracle of Hanukkah is that God helped our people transform the muted, dampened, flickering fire burning within their souls into a renewed, rededicated Jewish existence. The lesson we learn from Hanukkah is that every Jew, no matter how far removed from a life imbued with Judaism, has a flicker of fire burning within them. Just as the Temple was cleaned up to serve as a rededicated dwelling place for God’s Presence, so too must our souls be re-ignited as dwelling places for God. Like our Maccabean ancestors, we are all capable of finding the internal point of light making each of us a vessel of holy fire. The Hanukkiyot in our windowsills, fueled by oil, help remind us that we can brighten our lives by nourishing our souls through the fulfillment of mitzvot. The psycho-spiritual purpose of the Hanukkiyah is merely to help draw us inward so that we might find the internal, true fire of Hanukkah.
Hag Urim Sameach,
Rabbi Philip Ohriner
On a personal note: By now, many are aware that the fire burning in my soul has drawn me to a different path for a rededicated rabbinate. This summer, Shoshana, the boys and I will begin developing a self-sustaining ecosystem in Los Gatos. At Ma’alot Farms (the name we have chosen for the farm) we will be living our Jewish values more fully in concert with the land, sustaining ourselves through what we cultivate, and sharing our bounty, experiences, and acquired wisdom and knowledge with others in a variety of different contexts including environmental/agricultural education, conservancy, food justice advocacy, and community organizing. I am deeply energized and truly “aflame” for this new calling that I share with my family. Already, we have been overwhelmed by the shared excitement so many in the CBD community and beyond have shared with us as we begin on this new journey. Many have proactively reached out but I wanted to publicly offer that if you are curious to learn more about our motivation, plans, and dreams, I would be more than happy to have a cup of coffee or sit together to discuss them. Please email Barbara (firstname.lastname@example.org) and she can find a time for us to meet that is convenient for you.