The Symbolism of Light
As the menorah shines with all eight candles on this Shabbat Hanukkah, I am inspired to reflect on the powerful spiritual metaphor of light in the Jewish tradition. Light is one of the enduring symbols for God in our sacred texts. The new Conservative chumash, Eitz Hayim, offers a profound commentary on the lighting of the menorah in the Tabernacle and the Eternal Light which adorns the ark of every synagogue:
“Why has light been such a favorite symbol of God? Perhaps because light itself cannot be seen. We become aware of its presence when it enables us to see other things. Similarly, we cannot see God, but we become aware of God’s presence when we see the beauty of the world, when we experience love and the goodness of our fellow human beings” (Eitz Hayim Commentary, p. 503). Thus, as we gaze at the beautiful burning candles of the menorah, we are reminded of God’s presence in our lives. As the light of the menorah illuminates our homes and the glowing faces of our loved ones, we can contemplate God’s bountiful blessings.
Light also serves as a metaphor for Torah, mitzvot, and the human soul as the Proverbs teach, “A mitzvah is a candle, and the Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23) and “A candle of God is the soul of man” (Proverbs 20:27). The mystical commentator, Sefat Emet, explains that performing a mitzvah is like lighting an internal candle. He writes:
“Doing a mitzvah is like lighting a candle before God — it is preparing a place where God’s glorious presence can dwell. By means of this you enliven your soul, the candle… The more light a person brings about in the physical darkness, through doing the mitzvot, the more that one will enlighten one’s soul from the light above” (Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, Sefat Emet, Parashat T’tzavveh ). The mitzvot become spiritual tools for opening our souls to God’s light and spreading that light into the world around us.
In this wintry season of darkness, we recognize both God’s role and our own human efforts in bringing light into the world. God’s light illuminates the universe with justice and righteousness. Each mitzvah we perform and each Torah text we study enables us to partner with God in shining that light through the world. This Hanukkah, may the burning candles of the menorah mirror the flaming candles of our souls, enlightened and enlivened by our commitment to God, to mitzvot, and to the study of Torah.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.