There was a debate in the Talmud between the houses of Hillel and Shammai over the method of lighting Chanukah lights. The House of Shammai felt that you should start with 8 candles and decrease each night, indicating the number of nights left. The house of Hillel felt that you start with one and light one additional one each night based on the idea that in matters of sanctity, you do not downgrade –you INCREASE the light on each successive night. Among the darkest days of the year, the season of lights arrives. Chanukah candles, Christmas lights, even the New Year’s sparkle brings sparks of warmth to an otherwise dark, and depressing season. But Chanukah lights aren’t like other holiday lights. Chanukah lights are themselves holy. The prayer says, “haneirot hallalu kodesh heim… v’ein lanu r’shut l’hishtameish bahem ela lirotam bilvad.” (These lights are holy… we do not have permission to use them except for seeing them alone.) The lights do not just turn on by plugging them in. They must be lit, blessed, and looked upon. They are kindled by the shamash – the head candle – a candle whose sole role is to bring light to all the others. The shamash is the candle that holds the hope, the light, the future, the agency to bring holiness and light into the world.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Mikeitz, Joseph is put in a position that allows him to be a shamash for the first time in his life. Up until this point, everything has happened TO him. He has been put in very difficult circumstances, and has had few choices in how things played out. Now, this week, Pharoah tells him his dreams and Joseph not only interprets them, telling Pharoah that there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, but suggests what Pharoah can DO about it. He kindles the light that will lead Pharoah to put him in charge, to save food, and to save people from starvation.
This Chanukah season, I listen to the news, talk to friends, read social media, and feel so much darkness in our world. I see violence, hatred, the inability we have to listen to one another with empathy, and it feels easy to feel hopeless. But the Joseph story and the lights of the Chanukiah come together to remind us that hope lies within. We have the agency to be the shamash – to bring light, hope, warmth, love, friendship, and a listening ear to those around us. Without that one candle, that one small flame that doesn’t even count in the counting of the candles, the darkness would remain. The light moves from candle to candle until on that last night, all are lit and the brightness of the menorah sparkles in our eyes. It is up to us whether we will then continue on the next night to bring light to the rest of our world.
Cantor Sally Neff