We depend on the borrowed light of others

With gratitude to Rabbi David Ingber and Rabbi David Jaffe for their original teachings and helping me think through some of the ideas in this drash for Chanukah.

Update: I just read a teaching from the Talmud, shared by R’ Jonathan Sacks similar to my drash here. It’s definitely worth taking a peek at. Here’s an excerpt:

“There’s a fascinating argument in the Talmud. Can you take one Chanukah light to light another? Usually, of course, we take an extra light, the shamash, and use it to light all the candles. But suppose we don’t have one. Can we light the first candle and then use it to light the others?

Two great sages of the third century, Rav and Shmuel, disagreed. Rav said No. Shmuel said Yes. Normally we have a rule that when Rav and Shmuel disagree, the law follows Rav. There are only three exceptions and this is one.” [Read more].

There is a story [1] back from the time when legends and fairytales weren’t just stories for children at bedtime, but were grand narratives that we told to help each other learn more about ourselves and our place in the universe:

In the very beginning of space and time, back before the creation of any life on earth, there was the sun and the moon.

The sun shined during the day, and the moon shined during the night. But at this moment in time, the night was just as bright as day. Everything would have gone on like this, even to this day, if the Moon had just done as she was told and not become jealous of the Sun.

You see, the moon complained that it wasn’t fair that there should be two luminaries of equal size. The moon was jealous that the sun got to shine during the day. She said to God: “I, too, want my light to be the light of the sun.”

How often do we look around at others and the world and feel inadequate?

How often are we blinded by the brightness of others,
and wish that we could be just as radiant?

How often do we think, maybe, that we alone have the right vision,
and the right power?

How often do we want to be like the sun?

So the moon said to God: “Make me like the sun, so that only I will shine for the heavens and earth!”

The story ends with God punishing the moon because of her jealousy… so that it wouldn’t get to shine its own light anymore, but would have to reflect the light of the sun.

It’s sadly poetic.

We can imagine our ancestors, gazing up at the heavens, wondering why it was that there were these two distinct sources of light – each with her own temperaments and feelings.

One warm, one cool.

One steady and consistent-daily, and one who went through phases, sometimes fully absent.

And so they told this clever story.

And perhaps we can imagine our ancestors, then gazing back at themselves, wondering what it was that made each of us unique and distinct from each other, each with our own temperaments and personalities.

And so they told this clever – this sensitive, human, story.

See, the error of the moon was not actually that it was jealous.

The moon’s mistake was that it was unappreciative of its own beauty and power – a heavenly personality, created just for it, by God!

And so, its punishment for not being mindful and grateful of its own light…
was that it would forever require borrowed light.

We, too, are imbued with a distinct, personal light. A spark, planted uniquely within each of us from a source far beyond the stars.

And yet, we, too, depend on the borrowed light of others.

Because of just how hard it is to recognize that light within us.

Why? Because it’s frightening to be on your own, alone, in the dark. And so, even when God “punishes” the moon by reducing its light, one of the results… is that you can now see the stars.

When you’re just trying to shine as brightly as the sun – they are always absent. But with some humility – you can now see the other lights that are just waiting to be seen.

On Sunday night, we’ll light the first candle of Chanukah.

The most basic mitzvah of Chanukah is to light one candle for the entire house.

If that’s all you can afford or put together, one candle per night suffices for an entire home. You can still share in the light together, gathered around one source.

But the ideal way is for each person to light their own candles, reflecting more and more light, each night – combining with other sources of light; radiating out into the darkness.

It’s okay to share just one source of light.

But it’s much better to reflect more.

So what do we do?

Judaism teaches that every person has this spark of holiness – and it’s one that each person alone – and no one else – has.

This isn’t just a mystical, spiritual idea. It has real, concrete implications:

One of our jobs in life is to search for what’s missing in ourselves, by finding what others uniquely have to offer.

Every single person you encounter every day – your Uber driver.

Your food delivery person.

The concierge in your building.

Your boss and your assistant.

Your liberal Democrat friend and your conservative Republican friend.

Every single person has something that you don’t have, that could make you more complete.

And maybe – because each of us is a little bit like the moon – it’s hard for us to see that spark within ourselves.

There’s a beautiful Chasidic teaching that in those moments when you recognize the distinctive spark of light in someone else – when you learn from them, and shine a little bit of light back – it’s as if you are helping them light their very own Chanukah candles.

It’s true that we can get by with a shared chanukiah.

But how much brighter the world could be when we reflect more of each other’s light.

We depend on the borrowed light of others.

Particularly when it seems as if the world is at its darkest.

Like right now – in this 24-hour period of the winter solstice, when our corner of the planet is at its darkest.

Like right now – in this turbulent time, when our Jewish corner of the planet is feeling especially dark.

It’s in these moments when we most depend on the borrowed light of others.

Just like the chanukiah.

See – it’s true that each light of the Chanukah stands on its own.

But each candle is also dependent on the shamash – the helper candle – to ignite it.

And here’s the thing – when you use the shamash to light the rest of the candles, it doesn’t take away from its own light.

This is what the moon forgot: It doesn’t diminish your light to recognize and ignite the light in others.

When it’s dark out, the easy thing to do is to say we just add light.

Both literal and figurative.

The much harder – but much more necessary thing to do is to ask ourselves: responsibility do I have to bringing forth the light in others?

Because we depend on the borrowed light of others.

While my lights can stand on their own, how can I also strive to be like a shamash for others?

What’s the light I need to see in others, so that I can bring it out, and reflect more light into a world when it feels dark.


[1] (Based on Bereishit Rabbah 6:3, 4 and Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 6, with some translation from a retelling by Alice Jacobson).


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s