This week begins the celebration of the Jewish holiday, Hanukkah.
Hanukkah is the celebration of two miracles that occurred in the year 167 BCE. The Second Temple in Jerusalem was under control of the Seleucid Greek dynasty, whose ruler was Antiochus Epiphanes. A small group of Jews, the Hasmoneans (better known as the Maccabees), were able to expel the large Greek forces from the Temple and from governorship of Israel.
After retaking the Temple, the Menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum, was to be re-lit as part of the daily Temple ritual. However, the Hasmoneans only found enough pure, untainted oil to last for a single day. A miracle occurred and the oil continued to burn for eight days.
As such, we celebrate the two miracles, of the oil and of the military victory, for eight days. The Jewish custom is to start the holiday by lighting one candle the first night and then adding one additional candle each night until the eighth night, when eight candles will be lit.
Originally, the custom of adding one candle a night was debated by the Rabbis during the first centuries of the Common Era. The Babylonian Talmud describes an argument that occurred between two early Jewish schools of thought, the schools of Shammai and of Hillel, regarding the order of lighting the Hanukkah candles.
According to the school of Shammai, the lighting of these candles is done as a countdown, starting from eight candles on the first night until we get to one candle on the last night of the holidays. The Jewish custom follows the opinion of the school of Hillel, in which one candle is lit the first night and then one candle is added each night of Hanukkah through the eighth night.
The school of Hillel reasoned that for matters of ritual, it was appropriate to elevate spiritually, through adding, and not downgrade it by subtracting one candle each night.
The lights of Hanukkah symbolize hope and positive energy in our lives. By adding a candle each night, we are symbolically adding more positive energy and light into the world.
Yet, when we look at a candle, we also see vulnerability. A flame flickers and eventually goes out. The wax and wick of the candle get consumed by the heat and flame.
As we continue to add a flame each night, the candles become more vulnerable, as the heat emanating from each new candle causes the candles to melt faster each night. Hence, on the eighth night, when the Hanukkah menorah is shining brightest, it is also burning away the fastest.
In life, we grow spiritually. However, as we become closer to our spirit, we are increasingly vulnerable to periods of darkness.
The famous Hasidic master, Baal Shem Tov, describes how we all have spiritual highs and lows, and the greater we are connected spiritually, the more susceptible we are to spiritual doldrums.
As we gaze upon the lights of the Hanukkah menorah, may we be able to remember the light that shines forth from all of us, and be able to focus on continued growth during this holiday season.