There are many ways to dispel darkness. We turn on lights all the time without thinking. But there are some lights that require a great deal of thought.
Take, for example, a single candle. It must be placed in exactly the right spot, away from a draft, safely ensconced in a holder that is seated on a flat, stable surface. Its wick must be upright, unencumbered by extra wax. Once lit, its flame is alive, mesmerizing, unique. We look into the flame and see a dot of black at the center, surrounded by blue, yellow, and finally white, and we watch it reach upward.
And the seven candles that Aaron was instructed to place at the entry of the Tent of Meeting? The Torah tells us that the seven-branched menorah was to be positioned in such a way as to shed light both into the Tent and outside of it (see Numbers, chapter 8).
Carefully tended by Aaron and his sons, the light of these candles emanated in both directions, illuminating the connecting point between the Divine and humans.
As my friend Rabbi Evan Krame pointed out, the preparation and placement of this light was far more meaningful than merely flipping a switch. So too with the candles that we light on Friday evening, before Shabbat.
This is why, I think, so many Jewish families pass down their Shabbat candlesticks from generation to generation. Sometimes silver, sometimes brass, often dented and worn. Many made the long and arduous trip to our homes by boat, some smuggled in the lining of coats, or wrapped lovingly in soft cloth, nestled carefully in suitcases. Regardless of their condition, or perhaps precisely because of the scars they bear, they are cherished.
Throughout this week’s Torah portion there are important, sometimes stressful, interactions – interactions between different individuals, between groups of people, and between God and people. Several times there are conflicts or misunderstandings. At other moments things go smoothly, especially when people cooperate, collaborate, and encourage each other.
But first comes the commandment to light the lamp. Aaron is commanded to carefully place the candlesticks and then to lift light, to enlighten.
Rabbi Krame wrote, “For me this is an instruction about how the light is divine but the crucible in which the light is set ablaze is fashioned by us. Thus, if we want to illuminate our Shabbat with a spark of divine rest and holiness we start by carefully choosing our candlesticks, affixing the candles, and blessing the light.”
Every day, we turn on lights without a second thought. I walk into my home and snap on the light switch. My car is set to automatically turn on the headlights when it gets dark. So too the streetlight outside my window.
But every Friday night, just before Shabbat enters, we are invited to light candles with kavannah, with intention and thoughtfulness.
Rabbi John Rosove wrote of this, “In kindling light, a disarmingly simple act, we transform our homes, synagogues and lives with sparks of eternity and the vision of the world redeemed.”
At my synagogue’s services, before we light the Shabbat candles on Friday night, I often invite those who wish to bring light into the world to join me. Because even when we light the candles in full daylight, there is still a need for more light. There is always a need for more light.
When we shine light into dark places, into times of confusion and miscommunication, we can bring clarity and understanding. When we shine light into our homes, we can bring peace and harmony. When we shine light into our relationships, we can bring healing and hope.
In our complicated world, where at times it seems that darkness prevails, may the leaders of our communities – and we too – be reminded to carefully and thoughtfully kindle the light of hope, the light of understanding, the light of wisdom, and the light of peace.