On Chanukah, just let the lights go out

On Chanukah, just let the lights go out

On making the time to watch the flames

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. You can reach him at edmojace@gmail.com.

There’s a popular Chanukah song recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, “Light One Candle.” Its chorus insists we “don’t let the light go out” — but I’ve been thinking that maybe we should.

Not that I want to leave all those Maccabee children stumbling in the dark on cold December nights, or abandon them without an image of light and hope to plug into. But sometimes, letting the light go out kindles an altogether different kind of luminance, and in that unearthly light we can examine the moments of our lives that we hold dear.

So my urging that we watch the light go out is a literal one — while we love to bask in the glow of our menorahs, what really is illuminating is watching the candles go out. Watching them burn out, one by one, makes me think about how remarkable it is to kindle light.

In a time when LED menorah decorations are plentiful and we can use an app to light the “candles” on our smartphones, please give me little blue, yellow, red, and white candles. The fire of my imagination lights up as their wicks burn down.

One Chanukah — after our family menorah was lit, the blessings chanted, the songs sung, the gifts opened — everyone trudged upstairs to watch TV. I stayed downstairs alone and watched the menorah burn low. Though the communal and commercial push on Chanukah is toward shopping mall candle lightings, house parties, and group crafts for kids, I wanted to see if the holiday also could be quiet and contemplative.

The fire of my imagination lights up as their wicks burn down.

I’m not talking “silent night” here — that’s that other holiday — but a real chance to take in the play of shadow and light and to contemplate what Chanukah means.

The Jewish life cycle, from bris or baby naming to funeral and shiva, leaves little time for individual reflection. Judaism calls for a group, a minyan, to experience much of what it offers. Even on Yom Kippur, we do not confess our sins alone, but together as community.

So I admit that sitting alone and watching the candles burn down seemed a little downbeat and weird at first.

But the traditional prayer “Hanerot Halalu” (“These Lights”) — which reminds us, as we look upon the candles, to thank and praise God “for the wondrous miracle of our deliverance” — helped me see this solo experience in a different, well, light. While watching the flames, I finally connected with the words of the prayer, realizing that after eight nights of parties and presents (as well as latkes, sufganiyot, and black cherry soda), I felt miraculously delivered, like I was a Maccabee who emerged victorious from the combat zones of holiday shopping.

Casting a shadow on my reverie, however, was the “Chanukah Meditation” in my Sim Shalom prayer book. It suggested that “in the last glimmer of spiraling flame,” I should be able to see the spark of “Maccabees, martyrs, men and women of valor.”

Try as I might, staring at the candles burning down, all I could make out were colorful driblets of wax.

I wondered: Was there some other message?

Flames reach out at us from almost every part of Judaism. Looking into our menorahs, they can draw us into a light of memory, like a yahrzeit candle lit at the anniversary of a loved one’s death. Flames also light us up with celebration — think of illuminating the candles of Shabbat or setting bonfires on Lag B’Omer.

In the window of my dining room, another candle connection was burning up right before me. The shamash, the candle used to light all the others on the menorah, was burning out first, making me ask: Who had been my shamash? A basketball coach, a college lecturer, the rabbi where I grew up, a kid from Scouts and, to a well-earned round of applause, my parents, all took their turns in the candle light. In turn, they had showed me how to move my feet, write, parse Torah commentary, cook, and strive toward menschhood.

In the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation, the earliest foundation text of Kabbalah, there is a passage about a “flame in a burning coal.” Aryeh Kaplan, an Orthodox rabbi who was known for his knowledge of physics and Kabbalah, wrote that it can be used as a meditation. In his book “Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation in Theory and Practice,” various parts of the flame correspond to the Sephirot, or attributes through which Ein Sof — “the infinite” — is revealed.

In Kaplan’s meditation, the wick represents the physical world. The blue flame closest to the wick is “the counterpart of malchut,”or kingdom, which is our perceptions of God’s actions and attributes. Surrounding this is the bright yellow flame, which corresponds to the sephirot of kindness, strength, beauty, victory, splendor, and foundation.

The hottest part, the white flame, is the sephira of binah, or understanding, with the “light radiating from the candle,” corresponding to chochmah, or wisdom.

“The only way in which the flame can rise is for all of these parts to come together,” Kaplan wrote.

And rise they did, growing brighter first, and then sputtering out, one by one, but leaving me with a glow.

JTA Wire Service

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