The principal of the religious school where I teach led an exercise on Tuesday evening.
It was the first night of Hanukkah. We had gathered all of the students together in the small chapel of the synagogue so that we could talk about the holiday and light the hanukkiah1 together. After a quick refresher for the students about the correct way to light the candles – shamash2 first, candle for the first night on the right side of the hanukkiah, light the newer candles before the older ones, etc. – we all sang the blessings together while one of the teachers lit the candles.
Then we turned off the lights.
It took a minute or two for the students to quiet down. It was 5:30 in the evening and they were understandably antsy after a full day of school and then an hour or so of religious school. Once they were quiet, though, my principal asked everyone in the room to look at the Hanukkah candles in front of her for a few minutes in silence. She asked us to think about what the candles represent and to see what thoughts came to us as we watched them.
The room became still. The tiny candles were the only real sources of light in the room, save for the faint glow of the streetlights coming through the windows. The flames flickered slightly before stabilizing into a steady burn. They gleamed brightly, projecting shadows onto the walls and creating a halo of sorts around the hanukkiah that held them.
I started watching the other faces in the room as people focused on the hanukkiah. The third graders in the front row on the opposite side of the room were watching the candles intently. Their faces looked faintly orange from the firelight and I could see the reflections of the candles in one girl’s glasses. The sixth and seventh graders next to me fidgeted slightly in their seats as their gazes fixed on the candles before traveling elsewhere around the room. I was impressed; most of the students seemed to be taking the activity seriously.
I returned my focus to the candles for a minute, watching as the flames did their best to beat back the darkness of the room. I pictured the tiny fires standing up as tall as they could, with their chests puffed out and their arms folded across their chests, radiating attitude and strength. The darkness seemed to keep trying to close in, to swallow up the lights and extinguish the flames where they stood. The candles continued their steady burn, however, barely flickering in the dark chapel. It was almost as though the fires were so confident in their abilities that they were indifferent to the blackness working to engulf them.
I began picturing the little candles as my children. Eitan and Shayna, strength and beauty, standing together against the darkness that seems so pervasive in our world today. I imagined them working together to solve problems and supporting each other through trying times. I saw them leaning on each other to help their communities and improving circumstances for the people around them. I saw them as the embodiment of the phrase, “a light unto the nations.”
I found myself thinking of the Hebrew song I learned as a child about a small group of people banding together to beat back the threatening forces around them. I thought, in particular, of the following lines: Or echad, hu or katan; vechulanu or eitan — one light alone is small; all of us together have a light that is strong. It’s easy to see why I enjoy this song so much; my son’s name is one of the most important words of the song. But I also love the symbolism of it. Not only do candles create a stronger light when they are combined, people are able to create more influence when they join together. There is, indeed, strength in numbers.
I sat there, surrounded by religious school students in the dark synagogue chapel, with two tiny Hanukkah candles serving as the only light in the room. For a precious few minutes, I got lost in visions of a future in which my children joined other young people like those sitting next to me to spread goodness, love and compassion through a world that seems to be losing those feelings on a daily basis. I felt hopeful about the idea of my children playing a role in making the world a better place. I saw a future that seemed brighter than the one I have been picturing recently.
And I smiled.
1. A hanukkiah and a menorah are essentially the same thing except that a menorah has seven branches and the hanukkiah has nine. Their uses are also slightly different; a menorah can be used for light and rituals, while the hanukkiah is only used to perform the ritual of lighting Hanukkah candles.↩
2. The shamash is the “helper candle.” Its branch is usually slightly higher than the other branches to distinguish it from the candles used for each night of Hanukkah.↩