The Talmud tells the story of Hanukkah with pregnant terseness: “What is [the story behind] Hanukkah? When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one jar of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained enough for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle occurred and they kept the lamp lit for eight days.” (Shabbat, 21b)
Imagine the scene when the Maccabees first rekindled the Eternal Flame. Warriors turned janitors, barely rested from battle, toil to clear the area of rubble, to scrub the altar, and baste the tatters in the curtain. And, despite the Maccabees’ reasoned skepticism that the flame will either starve or be extinguished by the wind that rips through the breaches in the walls, a runner starts his eight-day run for more oil.
The Talmud conspicuously foregrounds the miracle of the light. The miracle of the story lies not in the military victory, nor in the renovation of the edifice, but in the simple, humble act of lighting a lamp.
There is a long Jewish tradition of likening the human soul to a flame. From there, it’s an easy jump to imagine the Temple walls and beams, furniture and courtyards as the human body, a magnificent edifice containing that soul-flame.
Alas, even the sturdiest of buildings eventually give in to decay or injury. As someone who works with people with dementia, I meet many people who are like old, damaged buildings. But I have noticed no correlation between condition of body and brightness of soul.
It’s easy to look at a person with advanced dementia and think that there’s no one there, that the light inside has gone out. But we often fail to really see.
If you walk past a Hanukkah menorah set in the window of a magnificent house, it burns no brighter than that in a ramshackle one. And maybe even the cracks in the walls of the latter would allow us to see even more light, more soul. To paraphrase and (and slightly damage) an oft-quoted line from Leonard Cohen of blessed memory, there’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets out.
חג אורים שמח––A Happy Festival of Lights;
Joyous Winter Holidays to all.