The Gift of Candles | Congregation Beth Am

The Gift of Candles

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
November 29, 2002

Every year at this season, when I was a child, my parents would take us out to see the Christmas lights. If you lived in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, that meant a drive to Candycane Lane – a neighborhood where all the homes featured incredible outdoor displays – illuminated Santas and reindeer-driven sleighs, giant snowmen and motorized hordes of frolicking elves – all awash in nonstop Christmas carols piped through every street. Hundreds of cars would be lined up, inching their way through the neighborhood – but it was one traffic jam that nobody ever complained about.

I’m sure that a lot of those cars, like ours, contained Jewish families, gazing in awe and wonder at this fantasy of color and light and excitement. For us, it was every bit as dazzling as Disneyland.

We always came home from these field trips charged up and a bit overwrought. Sometimes we’d get into fights with our parents – “why can’t we put up Christmas lights, too?” On the way home we’d point out a few houses, here and there, that were decorated with blue and white lights only – Jewish homes, obviously – and we’d try to bargain for that sort of a compromise. But the message about putting up lights was always the same: you can look at them, but you can’t have them. And so Judaism, for me, was about what I couldn’t have.

Shelly and I followed a different practice when our own children were young. We didn’t take them out on special drives to see the Christmas lights. As much as possible, we kept them out of the malls around this time of year. Christmas already surrounds them, we thought. There’s no need to make a special effort to dazzle them with the attractions of the season. There’s no reason to create situations that make them feel deprived and left out, like outsiders looking in on a wonderful party they can’t attend.

To the eyes of a child, Christmas will always have a special appeal. The religious themes of a newborn baby, peace and love and goodwill towards all, along with the popular images of Christmas, rife with color and splendor – to say nothing of all that candy and all those toys – go straight to a child’s heart.

It took me years before I was able to grow out of my own childhood sense of envy and deprivation at this season. I came, eventually, to understand that Judaism offers nothing that competes on the same level as Christmas – the grand display of decorations, the larger-than-life symbols, the sense of a whole culture awash in celebration.

I wish I had learned, when I was a child, what it is that Judaism does offer. Not strings of colored lights hung outside the house, but a home lit up from within. We are a people of candles, a people in love with the lighting of tapers. It’s not even low-tech; it’s no-tech. It’s the absence of tech. When we light candles we turn our back on the garish glare of modernity; we open ourselves up to something ancient and fragile and holy.

The festivals and sacred times that extend throughout our year are like a chain of lights – a torch passed from one runner to the next. So it is that every part of a Jewish life is ultimately about illumination -- a struggle to push back the darkness.

At the heart of everything is the weekly candle lighting on Friday nights – a graphic symbol of all that Shabbat represents: a peaceful home, a warm, loving circle around the family table, a respite from the bright lights of commerce and industry; a celebration of the spirit. When the match is struck on a quiet Friday afternoon at sunset, clarity and purpose enter a Jewish home: the candles illuminate what truly matters in life.

When the stars come out on Saturday night, the gentle, braided lights of Havdalah console us for the passing of Shabbat; new lights are kindled to inspire us to live the coming week with purpose and integrity.

On every holy day and festival – Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot – candles on our table reflect the beauty of reliving sacred time together with our people.

Candles extend throughout the Jewish life cycle as well. Fascinated by the flame – the way it flickers and falters, but always stretches higher, Jewish mystics likened it to the human soul – fragile and uncertain, seeking always to be reunited with its Divine source. Thus, candles are lit at the bris or naming for a newborn baby to signify the arrival of a new soul in the world. And a candle, called the ner neshama, the light of the soul, is lit when a soul departs; it burns for seven days after death in the home where the soul once dwelt, and is lit again each year on the yahrzeit – the anniversary of remembrance.

The candles we light in our homes at this season are about all these things and more. They signify warmth and light and beauty, joy and celebration, the human aspiration to reach higher. But the lights of Chanukah are, above all, about something very pure and basic: they are about fuel. They are about energy. They are about power.

An oil lamp was lit, once, when there was almost nothing left; barely enough to burn for a day. And yet the light did not go out. Thus the tradition says. And ever since, Chanukah reminds us to trust in a power that endures against all the odds.

When the world is in darkness, when our spirits are tired and depleted, when a sense of doubt or futility assails us – as devastating as the ancient wars we read about at this season – Chanukah teaches us to believe that the light will not die.

Throughout the years, throughout our lives, we go on doing the same simple Jewish acts -- striking matches, filling our homes with candles. In the end, you see, the light is one. It is the light of creation – the same light that hangs above the holy ark in our synagogues; the same light that Moses met at the burning bush; the same light our people met when long ago we stood at Sinai and the mountain was wreathed in flames. It is the fire that would not go out; it is inexhaustible power; it is spirit that cannot be quenched. It burns in us as it has burned in all the generations before us. It is why we are still here, we Jews, still determined to live; still refusing to disappear from the stage of history; still stubbornly ourselves, despite all efforts to dissolve us into everybody else.

Not for us the brilliant strings of colored lights that illumine the streets around us in December. Not for us the big, shining symbols of this season. We have our own light: the inner light of integrity and strength, the modest and gentle light that insists, quietly, that there is value in being different; the light of faith that testifies that we here for a purpose; we have holy work to do in the world.

It is tempting, at this season, to give our children the gifts of Candycane Lane – sweet and pleasant and easy for a child to taste. But those gifts, in the end, will leave Jewish children empty and hungry – hungry for what is truly theirs. If we love them, let us give them a gift that fills their hearts and minds and souls; a gift that nourishes and sustains them throughout the years. Let us give them the gift of Jewish candles.

Congregation Beth Am
  • 26790 Arastradero Rd., Los Altos Hills, CA 94022
  • (650) 493-4661 Contact Us

We strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).