Soul candles

Rabbi Greg Alexander

By Rabbi Greg Alexander, Temple Israel

The first time I really understood Chanukah was when I lived in Israel. In South Africa, December is sunshine, beach and holidays and in the middle of this we are lighting the Chanukah. While there is always something magical about Chanukah, it reeeaallly made sense when I lived in Jerusalem. It’s the middle of Winter, the moon is disappearing as the end of Kislev approaches, so it’s the darkest and coldest part of the year. Suddenly lighting a Chanukiah is a profound act of lighting up the darkness. Each tiny candle, each song sung, each oily bit of comfort food like latkes and doughnuts was exactly what was needed at that time.

And are we not in a time of darkness, right now? As I write this, we are about to begin the month of Kislev and the hostages are still who knows where? The war is raging, bombs dropping on Gaza, rockets falling all over Israel. Protests on the streets of Cape Town, social media ablaze. What can we do?

We can take a lesson from the Chanukiah. On the first night, there is only one candle (and the shamash), and it might seem like a tiny thing. To just have one candle. But remember that first candle marks the moment of decision when our ancestors realised that they would not have enough oil for the eight days.

In fact, only for one. With courage and faith, they lit it anyway. And the next day they did the same. And so do we. Two candles, three, four until we end up with a miracle – the fully lit Chanukiah blazing in front of us. Eight candles. 

The Zohar teaches that the Hebrew word for eight – shmonah – has the same letters as hashemen – (the oil) and neshamah – soul. Connect these eight candles and the miracle of the oil, and they point towards our neshamah. What our soul needs right now, what we need to do now, is to be lighters of the darkness, to bring each and every soul to do acts of goodness and healing to make this battered world calmer, kinder.  

We can start where we are, right now, as if we are lighting that one candle, one act, one repair, and build it up with faith and strength from there. Let us be builders and lighters, and let us start small, trusting that if we do this well, we can take our world from darkness to light.

• Published in the December 2023/January 2024 issue – Click here to start reading.

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