It never ceases to fascinate me how deep our learning can be when we investigate our sacred texts. During Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, we hear echoes from our tradition that we should be “a light among the nations” (Isaiah, 49:6), suggesting that we are the candles – the bearers of warmth and clarity of vision.
Indeed, candles are an essential part of Jewish customs – from the seven-branch menorah on the bimah to the nine branch Havdalah candle and the kindling of the Shabbat candles each week., and from the that burns above the ark to the twisted
The centrality of light in our tradition reminds me also of a Talmudic quote: “The light of a lamp for one is the light of a lamp for one hundred people” (Talmud Tractate Shabbat Daf 122a:5). This teaching illustrates that a candle, a light, is a non-diminishing resource. It is possible to share the light of one candle with hundreds of others without burden or additional resources. Light can be shared freely and indefinitely.
As an experiential Jewish educator, I specialize in helping students see Judaism through a scientific lens, avidly preaching the beautiful connections between scientific exploration and Jewish understanding. Why is fire so miraculous that it can be spread and shared inconsequentially?
Science can tell us!
When a candle is lit, the heat from the flame melts the wax at the base of the flame. This liquid wax is drawn up the wick where the intense heat breaks it down into molecules of hydrogen and carbon. These molecules react with the oxygen in the air to create heat, light, and other compounds. The heat given off by this flame melts more wax, which is drawn up the wick and the process continues. To burn, a flame needs only oxygen and fuel, in this case, wax. Enough heat is created by one candle that it can easily start the process for a second candle without interrupting its own cycle.
This beautiful teaching came to life before my eyes during a special Havdalah ceremony led by the teens in our synagogue. Instead of lighting just one twisted Havdalah candle, each teen held an individual candle, which was lit by the candle of the person sitting next to them. One by one each candle came to life, even as the candle that lit it continued to burn brightly. Soon the room was filled with flickering lights.
Our teens’ passion, too, demonstrates this teaching: one teen’s passion ignites another teen to pursue her own passion; one kind word creates a whole community of kindness; a single brave introduction produces friendships for a lifetime. The more we teach, the more we learn. The more we are kind, the more kind the world becomes. The more goodness we share freely, the more goodness we receive. The more we practice patience, the more patient we become. The more candles we light, the brighter the room becomes, and still our candle burns brightly.
In my mind, I can hear the argument of the parents of the teens I work with: “My patience is a quickly diminishing resource!” Although it may seem that way, remember that if one candle provides light for hundreds, when the room is full of lit candles, you are warm, and you can see better. We don’t light others’ candles only for their benefit, but for our own benefit as well.
This Hanukkah, remember that you are a candle. Give freely of your non-diminishing resources: patience, kindness, love, spirituality, knowledge, compassion, understanding. You lose nothing, and the world gains so much light.
If you feel like your candle is too small or your flame too weak to be “a light unto the nations,” remember that Judaism also teaches that “a little bit of light, dispels a lot of darkness” (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812).