In a few weeks, we will be kindling the candles on our Chanukiot (Chanukah Menorahs.) There is an interesting argument in the Talmud between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai regarding the proper way to light the Chanukiah. Shammai contends that we begin with eight lights and remove one each night. Hillel says the opposite – we begin with one and add more until the last night is the brightest. The law, of course, follows the school of Hillel – and yet, in order to show respect to Shammai, we light the candles from left to right – instead of right to left.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about lighting candles. As many of you know, my father, Sidney Black died and was buried last month in Chicago. Immediately upon returning from the cemetery, my family and I lit a Shiva Candle that burned for seven days. We spent the first half of the shiva in Chicago and the second half here in Denver. Unlike the Chanukiah which increases in brightness with every added candle. The light of the Shiva Candle is designed to gradually extinguish itself– a powerful reminder of both of the passage of time and the fragility of our lives and those whom we love.
Over the 25 years of my rabbinate, I have guided many families through periods of mourning. I have stood by and said prayers when loved ones tear the keriah ribbon – acknowledging the wounds in their hearts. I have stood at graveside and said kaddish and shuddered at the sound of earth falling on a coffin. I have helped light Shiva candles and held the hands of those who were saying kaddish for the first time. Until now, however, I have never had the experience of experiencing the power of allowing others to be there for me in my time of loss.
Like the gradually extinguishing light of the Shiva candle, the path of mourning is designed to help those who grieve to descend to the depths of their emotions and gradually to rise up once again to become part of society. It is a slow and deliberate process that allows and forces us to confront both
For my family and me, the most powerful aspect of sitting Shiva has been the outpouring of support and love we have experienced from our community. It was not merely the words that were said to us, but the physical presence of others that reassured us that, although the flame of my father’s life has been extinguished, his memory will still glow in our hearts.
The word, Chanukah means rededication. The act of mourning can force us to rededicate ourselves to living our lives in keeping with the highest ideals of those whom we remember. May the light of the Chanukiah help all of us to see the brightness and the beauty of the community in which we live and may it reflect the glow of love that we have been given by those who came before us.
Rabbi Joseph R. Black