Parshat Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)
One holiday that Israeli society loves to love is Hanukkah – a uniquely amicable festival. What makes this holiday so likeable? A vacation that cuts into the schoolyear, which had only begun a few months earlier, and students a few days of grace? The calorie-rich donuts?
This is an anthropological question without a clear-cut answer, but truth be told, the Jewish people has loved Hanukkah since the days of yore. Nearly a thousand years ago, at the conclusion of his book of halachot for Hanukkah, Maimonides wrote that “the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah candle is extremely well-loved”. There are those who have wondered why Maimonides chose to call a halachic mitzvah something “well-loved”. It is a religious commandment, after all, not some kind of leisure activity.
The Candles: The Story of Mankind
Perhaps, however, the fondness felt for this holiday originates somewhere else. We are in the dead of winter. The nights are long and cold, and you don’t need a vivid imagination to identify with the melancholy and solitude a person feels when returning to a dark home from work in a power outage. In the pre-modern era, when candlelight was an expensive commodity, people used it sparingly, and knew that most of the night is spent in the dark. A person would meet his wife and children in the dead of night, and wasn’t be able to clearly see them in the absence of a decent source of light.
This isn’t a purely technical description. This routine also leads to bleakness in a person’s psyche. Such a person is living in darkness, and yearns for light. To him, darkness represents nothingness and despair. He eagerly awaits light, and a time of hope.
And then, in the dead of night, with winter weather at full force, he catches a glimpse of candlelight. A warm, radiant flame lights up the dark and the perilous night sky. Its first gift is one of hope and faith in the days to come. A few words of encouragement for the despondent and the frustrated.
The masters of Kabbalah wrote extensively on the value of contemplating this candlelight, which contains some of the light of creation. However, halachic authorities wrote that we are forbidden from using this candlelight to perform any activity – even for Torah study. These instructions seem diametrically opposed, but the truth is that they complement each other.
We do not intend to consider this candlelight for utilitarian purposes. Nevertheless, the light symbolizes our hopes and alleviates our frustrations. It is the foundation of our faith in the human spirit and in man’s ability to reach new heights. This is why we are asked to deeply contemplate this light, calmly and pleasantly. It infuses us with hope and optimism as we approach the difficult winter days that await us after the holiday.
In the Book of Proverbs [20:27], we read that “The light of Hashem is the soul of man”. A candle is a profound expression of the entire set of values rooted within us, as human beings, and this is why we are so drawn to it. The candle is our story – the story of mankind.