Keeping the Flame Alive
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Chanukah seems to celebrate a miracle that on the surface seems rather unimportant. Why is slowly burning oil an event that should be remembered generations later? Furthermore, what is it so significant about eight days? Why not seven or nine? I would like to share an insight that I believe underscores the theme of these days.
Why the miracle of the flames? Consider what the symbolism of the oil lasting eight days means. When we say the fire did not consume the oil, we are in fact saying the fire is not of a natural order like regular fire. The flame that does not consume reflects not a physical, but spiritual reality. Just as the spiritual fire of the burning bush did not consume, the fire of the menorah for those eight days reflected the presence of the Divine.
In fact, the golden menorah in the Temple itself is a stylized tree of fire; a rabbinic legend tells us that Moses had a vision of the menorah, which was all fire. The entire menorah is meant to represent a spiritual flame that itself represents God’s presence.
Why eight days? The length of eight days and a miracle of fire have a parallel from a much earlier age. We are told in the book of Leviticus that the Tabernacle in the desert was dedicated for eight days. On the eighth day, we are told that fire came down from heaven and set fire to the altar which stood in the courtyard (Lev. 9:24). Again, like the miracles of Chanukah, God’s presence symbolically descended in the form of a pure flame without source.
What is the message of Divine flames descending upon the altar and the menorah? Perhaps it is the idea that it is the Divine Presence that infuses our great dreams with meaning. In our lives, there are moments of inspiration, moments where we feel larger than life, and the source of our strength is almost something beyond ourselves.
In the world of sports, this is often called “being in the zone” or “in the flow.” You feel completely absorbed and focused, as if another force possesses you. In religious terms, this is the power of being moved by the Spirit, inspired with the power and the hope that you can overcome all adversity.
The Jewish people in the desert and the Hasmoneans later in history were so consumed by inspiration, so dedicated to their higher calling, that they were able to draw down supernal flames from on high, validating all of their efforts. They were in ‘a spiritual zone,’ actualizing their purpose for being.
How do we maintain those peak moments of inspiration, those moments when we feel our efforts are blessed, our power is not our own, when we feel ourselves to be in a state of flow with the world and all its fullness? Here too, the model of the menorah and the altar are instructive.
The Torah commands us that the flames on the menorah and on the altar are never to be extinguished. Rather “In the tent of meeting, outside the curtain that shields the ark of the covenant law, Aaron and his sons are to keep the lamps burning before the Lord from evening till morning. This is to be a lasting ordinance among the Israelites for the generations to come.” (Exodus 27:20-21).
Regarding the altar we read, “And the fire upon the altar shall be kept burning thereby, it shall not go out; and the priest shall kindle wood on it every morning; and he shall lay the burnt-offering in order upon it, and shall make smoke thereon the fat of the peace-offerings” (Lev. 6:5-6). It is an obligation to provide oil for the menorah and wood for the altar every day.
Given this fact, while the initial flame was supernal in nature, the maintaining of these flames required constant attention and focus. The rabbis emphasize this fact. “Even though the fire came down from the heavens, it is a commandment for mortals to bring it.” (Rambam, Sefer Hamitzvot Aseh 29; BT Yoma 21a)
Even though originally, the fire for the alter came down from the heavens, soon after that first moment in Biblical history, human beings were asked to carry the mission forward. In other words, after showing the way, the Holy One is pushing us for more human agency.
We cannot wait for a Divine light to descend as in Biblical times; we must keep the lights burning through our own efforts. Similarly, the initial inspiration and breakthroughs we have in life must be nurtured and developed if they are to have a sustaining and transformative impact on each of us.
This is the challenge of Chanukah: How will we keep the flames burning throughout the year? How will we maintain our own inspirations and dreams? I think it begins by making sure to tend to them every day. There is no more important activity than this.
Especially during this pandemic that is impacting every one of us, we each need to pause as we light the hanukiyah each night and stare at the flames. Those flames represent both the Divine inspiration that has kept our people alive through so many difficult times and our own human agency, the abilities that God has given to each one of us enabling us to cope and maybe even to move forward.
As Thomas Edison said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” These eight days have given us the inspiration. It’s our job now to bring the inspiration and dreams we have to reality. We need to continually tend and cultivate our own flames, if we are to banish the darkness which clouds us from our own unique light, not only for ourselves, but for our families, our community and the world.
 Similar imagery is invoked regarding the Revelation on Mount Sinai, as God is said to descend on the mountain as a fire.
 Early sources talk about the story of Chanukah associated with the Hasmonean rededication of the altar. This tradition is explicitly alluded to in the liturgical poem Maoz Tzur, Rock of Ages.
 The custom of the Ner Tamid, or eternal flame, in modern synagogues derives from these two mitzvot/ commandments.