Sermon: A Little More Light
You would think that the procedure for lighting a menorah would be fairly non-controversial. You just light the candles, right? One additional candle each night for eight nights? But it turns out it’s not that simple. They say if you’ve got two Jews, you’ve got three opinions (and the same can probably be said of Unitarian Universalists). And so there is some disagreement about whether you should light one more candle each night of Chanukah or one fewer. Some rabbis say that it makes more sense to start out with eights and then light one fewer each night because this is commemorating a flame burning for eight days, presumably burning up oil so there was actually less and less oil each night until there was none.
Others say that while that makes logical, mathematical sense, this is a ritual and rituals are not necessarily logical. Rituals speak to a part of our being other than reason. And this ritual is about something not diminishing, but growing. The mythical story is that when the Jews reclaimed Jerusalem from the Greek army they rededicated the temple, which had been trashed by the Greeks. This entailed relighting the flame that was always supposed to burn there, representing God’s presence. They found that they only had enough olive oil to burn for one day and miraculously the flame burned for eight. And so while a real flame might burn smaller and smaller as the oil ran out, the spiritual flame, the flame of hope and faith, actually burned brighter and brighter. And so most Jews will light one more candle each night as the sense of magic grows. On the eighth night, with all the candles lit – a total of nine, including the one you use to light the others – it’s a beautiful sight. Enough light to fill the whole room with a joyful, vibrant, warm glow.
So if that’s so great, the second person with the third opinion might ask, why not just do all eight every night? If it’s all about magic and miracles anyway and you don’t need to be tied to logic, why not just have all the full complement of wonder right away? Life is short; eat dessert first and last!
And to that I would say, there is something to the discipline of waiting, as Kevin talked about. There is something to a little restraint and anticipation and letting the goodness of life ripen over time. And there is also something to learning to enjoy and appreciate being exactly where we are right now. There’s something to just lighting a single candle and having just that one flame and the one you used to light it sitting there, kind of lopsided in the menorah. It reminds us to love what is still a little incomplete and lopsided within us – our half-baked dreams and new ways of being; times when we are a beginner again, times when we don’t quite know what to do next. We don’t have to do everything all at once or become everything we want to be all at once. It’s okay to just be where we’re at, not wishing for what we don’t yet have, but honoring what we do have.
And then, it’s a beautiful thing, every night to keep adding light. We don’t need to save the world or revolutionize our lives in a week. But each day we can grow a little bit, each day we can try one more thing, add one more smidgen of good to the world. And the best thing is, this is not just an eight-day exercise – it’s a lifelong practice. We can take this lesson from the Chanukah ritual: it is not our job as humans to do it all or have it all right now; but it is our responsibility and our privilege every day to add a little more light.