The 36 candles that are lit during the course of Chanukah are said to represent the 36 hours that the “hidden light” shone during the six days of creation. According to this midrashic teaching, therefore, if we want to truly understand Chanukah, we must follow the mystical hidden light.
The concept of the hidden light comes from Genesis: light is created on the first day, whereas the sun is only created on the fourth day. We learn from midrashic teachings that the light that G-d created on the first day could be used to view all the events of this world, from beginning to end. With the help of this light a person could understand the ultimate value of every event that ever took (or will take) place in this world. After creation, G-d decided to hide this light for “the righteous ones in the world to come.”
The midrash juxtaposes the hidden light with sunlight. Noticing that only on the first day does the Bible say “G-d saw that the light was good” (1.4), the midrash says: “This light illumined the world and did not do any damage–unlike the sun.” The light of the sun is described here by the midrash as destructive light. The sun shines on everything and has a way of causing us to think that the world has no guiding hand, a world of contradictions and conflicts. A person who is guided solely by sunlight is blind to what happens behind the scenes. Such a person is unable to discern that a hidden hand pulls the strings and provides the world with deep meaning beyond physical reality.
The war of the Greeks against the Maccabees was a war of the wisdom of Greece, which draws its worldview only from the light of the sun, versus the wisdom of Israel, which seeks to illuminate the darkness of the world. “For a mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light” (Proverbs 6.23). Through in-depth study of Torah, an eternal vision is created that looks at the world end-to-end, a vision that gives all things a deep meaning that is not confined to physical matter. The Greeks sought to “darken the eyes of Israel” by outlawing Torah study. With this prohibition the Greeks sought to establish a world that contains only sunlight.
The victory over Greece by the Maccabees teaches us that the people of Israel has the power to view the world with the hidden light, to illuminate life with the light of Torah. Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the third Rebbe of Gur (1847-1905) said of the Maccabees: “That generation risked their lives and followed G-d even in the darkness, and thus they merited that the hidden light shine upon them. From this illumination we draw sustenance during the darkest days of the year, and every G-d-fearing person should be happy during these days when the hidden light shines.”
Thinking of the Chanukah candles as representing the hidden light accords nicely with the tradition that says that the Chanukah candles are not to be utilized for their light and are there solely to be gazed upon “in order to thank and praise G-d for his miracles and wonders.” With our Chanukah light we wish to illumine a reality not in the service of human desires but rather a reality that is all divine wonder. Unlike sunlight, the light of the Chanukah candles has no practical purpose. We are to just look at the Chanukah candles and recognize the hand of G-d in the world, and this is why the light of Chanukah is a symbol of the hidden light. Happy Chanukah!
TEDDY WEINBERGER is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from miami, where he was an assistant professor of religous studies. Teddy and his wife, sarah jane ross, have five children.