The Chanuka latkes and doughnuts are always sweet treats and the dreidel playing quite entertaining. But the highlight of Chanuka, of course, is the lighting of the candles, a time when family unites to commemorate the overt wonder of the miniscule amount of oil that miraculously lasted for eight days. The victory on the battlefront was no less spectacular, but it is specifically the miracle of the oil that is cited in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shabbat, 21b) as the reason for the establishment of the festival known to us as Chanuka, and thus we celebrate for a duration of eight days. What precisely is it that gives these flames such a prominent role on the Chanuka stage?
Let's look a bit closer into our Chanuka candles, and perhaps along the way we might also better understand the connection of the Temple's re-dedication to the earlier dedication and inauguration of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, which was completed on this very day of Chanukah so many years before. For such a task, we must return to the days of the Tabernacle and catch up with Aaron the High Priest as he is presented with the honorable charge of kindling the hallowed Menora.
Candles and Shalom Bayit
Aaron had just witnessed the offerings of the tribal leaders when the Tabernacle was first dedicated, and became despondent, feeling himself and his tribe excluded from any distinguished participation. The Midrash continues by citing God's response to Aaron's despair with the consolation that his service would be even greater than that of the heads of the other tribes, for he would prepare and kindle the Menora. But what exactly was so special about illuminating the lights of the Tabernacle's Menora?
Rabbi Yitzchak Horowitz turns our attention to one of the reasons why we are obligated to light candles on Friday night as we usher in the holy Shabbat. The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 23b) states that the Shabbat candles are conducive to shalom bayit, peace and harmony, in the home. Rashi explains that the light they produce dispels the tension that often permeates an unlit house, and provides an ambience of domestic serenity as the members of the household can move about freely and delight in the aura of Shabbat. Although God and His holy Temple certainly do not require the light of our candles, their illumination remains symbolic of the lofty concept of shalom bayit that was to prevail in the dwelling place of the Divine Presence as well.
That is why, offers Rabbi Horowitz, Aaron was appeased with being charged with the kindling of the Menora. Shalom, peace, is referred to as the only vessel God claims to contain His bountiful blessing (see Mishna, Uktzin 3:12), and it was therefore specifically Aaron who would complete the dedication of the Tabernacle with the finishing touch of bringing shalom -- and thus accompanying blessing -- to everyone else's contributions. No blessing could be manifest from any gifts, nor any holy vessels, until the sacred candles were to symbolically bring forth shalom into God's dwelling place. And, naturally, who is more suitable for this honorable task of bringing shalom into God's “bayit,” God's home, than Aaron the High Priest, the quintessential "o'heiv shalom ve'rodeif shalom," lover and pursuer of peace (Pirkei Avot, 1:12).
It was thus specifically the vehicle of the kindled lights that highlighted the sense of shalom that reigned in the Tabernacle and subsequent two Temples- just as our weekly candles have come to represent our own shalom bayit. And what is pure shalom but the ensuing harmony reflected when two people become so close that there is no longer any room for conflict. The grand edifice of the Tabernacle was erected precisely to emphasize the renewed closeness between God and His chosen people in the wake of the sin of the golden calf. They had been forgiven for their grievous sin and God demonstrated His renewed ties and proximity to His beloved nation that would now merit experiencing daily the tangible closeness of the Divine Presence.
During the Temple's re-dedication in the time of the HasmoneansHasmoneans, this overwhelming closeness was felt once again as the original dedication of the Tabernacle, which had been scheduled for 25th of Kislev, was re-experienced on the same date much later in history. The Hasmoneans had witnessed God's miraculous intervention on their behalf, and immediately rushed to the Temple to demonstrate to the people the renewed connection best illustrated by the Menora's sparkling lights.
The Unifying Power of Fire
Let us now delve a bit deeper and extend the correlation of fire to shalom, why it is that the sense of peace and unity is encompassed specifically in the vehicle of fire.
Whatever is thrown into fire soon becomes fire as well. What better representation, therefore, of sheer unity?
Let's ponder for a moment the uniqueness of fire. Homogeneous in its core nature, it is the only substance that automatically transforms whatever is placed within it to itself -- whatever is thrown into fire soon becomes fire as well. What better representation, therefore, of sheer unity? Anything thrown into a flame will soon become an intrinsic part of the fire itself.
Furthermore, until it reaches a dangerous level, the inherent warmth of a calm fire lures a person to bask in its proximity -- it naturally pulls one closer. And the symbols continue: The tip of the flame is white, the color that encompasses all the diverse colors of the spectrum and can thus be referred to as their unifier. Even the Menora, the vessel which contained the fiery lights, was to be carved from one solid piece, highlighting this notion of unification and harmony. All the lights of the Menora were to face one single direction, indicative of the shalom, peace, harmony and unity which the Menora manifested daily.
The overt connection with God was witnessed daily in the Temple through the medium of fire. When the sacrifices were being consumed on the altar, a miraculous fire descended from the heavens above and joined together in a unique partnership with the man-made fire already burning on the sacrificial altar. Hence, it was through the conduit of fire that the Jewish people witnessed their unique attachment, their profound sense of proximity, to God above. This naturally explains why the Hebrew word for a sacrifice on the altar is a korban, alluding to the fact that it serves as a vehicle through which kurva, closeness to God, is attained when consumed on the altar's fire, wondrously united with the one from above.
Perhaps because fire itself is the best representation of the ultimate unifier, fusing everything into its own natural composition and leaving us with only a larger flame, God thus chose fire as the means by which to illustrate that our sacrifices to Him enable us to connect and fuse somewhat with His eternal Being.
The greatest prophet ever, in fact, first connected to God as He revealed Himself to Moses through the conduit of a burning bush, and Elijah the prophet ascends heavenward specifically in a chariot of fire. In addition, at Mount Sinai we read: “All of Mount Sinai was smoking because God had descended upon it in the fire” (Exodus, 19:18). God establishes His firmest bonds through the means of His creation called fire, using the symbol of unifying power to highlight the impregnable ties between Him and His chosen people. The Torah was thus given specifically in a fire-filled surrounding. Hence, those who subsequently unite themselves entirely with God through His Torah, can merit a display of fire intended to accent the close proximity of God's Divine Presence to them -- as witnessed, for example, in the case of the renowned early sage, Yonatan ben Uziel, who was surrounded by fire in the midst of his learning, a fire that even consumed the birds flying overhead (see Talmud, Tractate Succah, 28a).
The paradigm of ultimate closeness in our physical world is the holy union of man and wife, the merging of ish and isha, represented by the joining of two Hebrew words each containing within it the Hebrew word aish meaning fire. To produce offspring, they need the third "partner" in creation, God -- the most instrumental of them all- Who is represented by the additional letters "yud" and "hei" (that together comprise one of God's many names) added respectively to the Hebrew labels for man and woman. It is thus, once again, God appearing in the midst of aish, fire, at a moment when we connect with Him on the highest plane. And if by misfortune the bond is dissolved and there is need for a divorce, our Sages (Talmud, Tractate Gittin, 90b) tell us that it is none other than the mizbeiach, the sacrificial altar, that sheds tears -- the unifier of celestial and human fire is pained most, as its fire is extinguished!
The Uniqueness of the Menora
Although the sacrificial altar thus also demonstrated this aspect, there was, of course, the natural need to light a regular fire on the altar. The flames of the Menora, however, were completely unnecessary from a natural standpoint, and thus it is specifically the light of the Menora that is to serve as the primary testimony to the Divine Presence resting within the Jewish camp (Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, 22b). The unique connection between the Jewish people and God is best highlighted by something specifically characteristic of His chosen nation. While the nations of the world also possess their own ideas of altars and sacrifices, the concept of a Menora, however, is completely alien to them, especially when its light is not at all needed for the purpose of illumination. Thus, the fiery light of the Menora, the quieter echo of the raging fire upon the altar -- lit by the lone nation which lives above and beyond the world of the mundane -- represents the unique bond. The lights of the Menora were to be prepared solely from shemen, the pure olive oil that is intrinsically tied to the concept of holiness and all that is above nature: just as it floats above the water, it symbolizes rising above the mundane as specifically oil is used to sanctify the holy vessels of the Temple and also anoint God chosen kings.
“A mitzvah, a commandment, is like a flame," we read in King Solomon's Book of Proverbs (6:23). The Maharal from Prague explains that the "flame" mentioned in the verse refers to the lights of the Menora that stood in the holy Temple, since only regarding that Menora do we notice an actual mitzvah to light its oil. The word “mitzvah,” used in reference to commandments, in fact, is etymologically related to the word le'tzavos, meaning to attach and wholly connect oneself to. Through the performance of God's mitzvot, we become firmly attached to Him. Based on all the aforementioned, it is quite understandable then why King Solomon would refer specifically to the flame of the Temple's Menora as the flame of mitzvah. The cherished lights of the Menora symbolized the unbreakable bond between God and the nation charged with serving Him in the Temple. The enveloping warmth of those special flames reminds us of the shalom, the peace and harmony, that dwells constantly between us and God above. They are, in fact, the only lights that, as long as the Temple stood, miraculously never stopped flickering.
To maximize the glorious festival of Chanuka, we must tap into the harmony that is derived by the lighting of the Menora which brings us all together as one.
Commenting on a passage in Tractate Shabbat (23b), Rashi applies this very verse to the Talmudic dictum which promises the merit of having children who are Torah sages to anyone who is careful to fulfill the "flames of mitzvah." He says that this refers to the lights of both the weekly Shabbat and the annual Chanuka. The connection so strongly felt between God and His people would not be limited to the lights of the Temple's Menora. Every Shabbat and every Chanuka, we can feel the closeness of the Divine Presence as well. The Friday night candles representing shalom bayit have much in common with the lights of Chanuka, the ones that echoed the original deep-felt connection between God and us first introduced in the Tabernacle of the wilderness. They all tap into the realm of shalom, the state of achieving complete unity with the God Who gave us the precious gift of Shabbat and Who graciously gave us the Tabernacle and subsequent two Temples as well. And one who heeds them both merits having children, true Torah sages who personify the principles of God and serve to increase shalom in the world.
If the glorious festival of Chanuka is to be maximized, we must tap into the harmony that is made possible by the Menora's lighting which brings us all together as one. The Midrash relates: “Said God to the Jewish people: 'If you are careful to light [the Menora] before Me, then I will watch over your souls which are compared to a flame, for it is written, 'Ner Hashem nishmat Adam,” the flame of God is the soul of man. The only way we can rest assured that our neirot, our flames, our burning souls, can be carefully guarded by God, is to ensure that we heed the calls of our actual candles and flames, the cries and pleas for preserving shalom in our homes, in our communities, and in our own mini sanctuaries. Only then will the light of the Temple's Menora flicker and shine once again as we all return to bask in the warmth and glory of the full-fledged closeness between us and God that only a third Temple can really provide.