Reflections (and life) in nine flames

Don't worry--I'm not turning pyromaniac on you. But Friday was the last night of Hanukkah.  Now, I'd been pretty good about lighting the right number of bulbs in the electric Menorah in the front room window each successive night (and had no problem obeying the Talmudic mandate to eat something fried in oil each night); but I'd been dilatory about lighting the actual candles at the proper time--I was out most evenings and nervous about letting actual flames burn in an empty kitchen.  Friday night, however, I found myself at home when the first three stars appeared in the sky, and gathered up nine candles.

Which Hanukkiah (the nine-candled Menorah used only at Hanukkah) to use? Sunday night we went to the temple's party, where close to a hundred families brought their own; so I chose the little "neighborhoods of Jerusalem" ceramic one because it was low, solid, difficult to tip over and the candles unlikely to lean into each other.  I have a chrome-and-brass one with eight candles in an even row, with the "shamash" (the "sexton" or caretaker candle that lights the others) at the rightmost end about an inch higher than the others. I used it last year with imported rainbow-colored, vanilla-and-honey-scented hand-dipped tapers that had a distressing tendency to lean into each other, and warp in the shared heat till they collapsed into drippy messy blobs. 

No, I chose the most traditional one I have: a silverplated old-fashioned one with four candles on each side flanking the central shamash, which rose proudly three inches higher. (All three of mine follow the halachic requirement that all eight candle-receptacles be of equal height, with the one raised one for the shamash--fraught with symbolism of humility and/or equality).  I placed the Hanukkiah on a sheet of foil in the center of my stovetop (worst came to worst and it or one candle toppled over, it would not start a conflagration) and chose eight blue dripless tapers plus one white one for the shamash.  So as to hold them firm and upright and avoid the melting, flopping mess, I anchored each one in a little wad of aluminum foil and lit the shamash in the flame of one of the stove burners.

One by one, left to right, I touched the flame of the shamash to each wick. Some took a few tries to light, some sputtered out and had to be relit, but eventually all were lit and proudly blazing upright in their respective receptacles.  Now, Hanukkah candles come in sets of 44 (sometimes 45 in case one snaps as you force it into its proper place), all the same size. You'd think that the eight "shamashim" would be a tad taller than the others, as it's the first one lit, lights the others, and is therefore the first to extinguish itself.  I'd always wondered about that and began to ponder as I stared into the nine flickering flames.

I surmised that the significance of that is that the shamash gives of itself so that the rest may glow, just as a parent provides for her or his children first and attends to their own needs last.  And if the natural order of things prevails, the "parent" shamash candle does not outlast its "children." That analogy comforted me as I watched.  The blue tapers stood erect and burned straight, without taking each other down.  

But then I noticed to my chagrin that the two candles flanking the shamash had flames higher than the others--so much higher that they flickered past the base of the shamash.  And as the air surrounding it began to get hotter and hotter, I observed the middle and base of the shamash begin to attenuate; then to my horror, it began not just to soften but to bend over alarmingly. I tried to straighten it, but it was just too soft (in retrospect, it came from a different set than the blue ones, which were labeled as "dripless") to be set upright, and the air around it just too hot to touch it.  I went for a table knife to coax it erect without burning my fingers, but to no avail: it bent over and collapsed, its wick feeding that of the candle to its right and dripping white wax all over the Star of David at its receptacle's base as well as the base of the Hanukkiah and the sheet of foil as it tried valiantly and ultimately unsuccessfully to maintain its flame. The white wax burned and melted, the remaining wick shortened; the flame became an ember and then finally a brief spiraling wisp of white smoke as its soul rose to become one with the universe.

Ungrateful children, I thought.  Rapacious protegés, these flanking candles, twin ambitious ingenues taking down the doyenne of the cast, eclipsing the very mentor that unselfishly gave them her flame so that they could blaze long and bright.  "All About Eve" meets the Maccabees (although the oppressor king Antiochus and not Judah the Hammer and his brethren took down their mighty missionary father Mattathias). I felt a brief flash of resentment: for a while, I saw in this scenario a parable of the generation gap, especially for women of a certain age (mine, alas).  Move aside, old crone--we've absorbed all the wisdom and tutelage you have to give, and now it's our time, the daughter candles seemed to be saying. I didn't know whether to nod sagely but sadly, or rage against the march of time and the impudence of youth.  No good deed goes unpunished, I sulked. 

I stared for awhile at the eight blue candles burning robust and tall without a shamash--just a dead white blob of wax, a lifeless, soulless body, at their center.  This is not right, I thought, not just aesthetically (bad enough) but symbolically as well.  So I defied halacha (prescribed religious rules), fetched a fresh blue dense and dripless taper, lit its wick with the flame of the tallest remaining daughter candle at the rightmost end of the Hanukkiah, and defiantly inserted it into the now-empty central receptacle of the shamash.  The daughters may have destroyed their mother, but they shall inherit a step-mom, one towering far enough above them to survive intact, I thought. (My Jewish upbringing, secular though it was, would not permit the intrusion of any sort of resurrection metaphor--wrong holiday anyway). The candles flanking it had burned down far enough that their flames could not reach past the middle of the replacement's receptacle; it would stand tall and survive (and in the process teach these young whippersnappers that we may be older than they are but not dead yet). 

But then I gasped as I watched those two flanking candles' flames grow taller and taller, reaching past the lip of the shamash's receptacle. No, no, I thought--you shall not take this new mentor down. But inexorably, the replacement shamash began to curve and lean, as had its weaker predecessor.   I reached for the shamash to set it upright, and found the air around it to be just as hot as before; so once again, I manipulated the table knife to coax it back into proper position at each sign of imminent buckling.  One by one, starting with the leftmost candle, the wax dwindled to a little puddle, the wicks shortened, glowed, and sent their souls skyward in those ascending spirals of smoke.  But the flanking candles' flames reached the white waxy remains of the original shamash and fed hungrily upon it till it disappeared, chunks of it smashing on to the foil.  

Hang in there, step-mom, I thought, just a little longer and those flames cannot harm you: you will cool and solidify and burn for your proper lifespan.  And that is what happened--as the two flanking flames grew shorter the blue shamash became solid and stable.  The last daughter candle to perish was the one whose flame had given life to the new shamash; and the new blue candle burned defiantly at the center of the candelabrum for a few more minutes until it too died a dignified and graceful death--its wisp spiraling higher and longer than any of the others......except that of its predecessor.

 I sat for awhile pondering the analogies, allegories and parables of the past hour (oblivious to the fact that it was dinnertime).  I knew that what I had done was a ritual no-no:  you don't mess with Mother Nature or the vagaries of physics.  Strictly speaking, I should have lit the candles as I had originally and let the wax fall where it may.  But I felt strangely vindicated by the triumph of the second shamash (which didn't really burn much longer than the "daughter" candle that had reached out to lend it her flame and bring it to life) and the justice of that donor daughter candle being rewarded with a life longer than that of her siblings.  (Not for a second did I entertain the possibility that it was a son--make of that what you will).  

This is silly, I thought as I put the Hanukkiah back on the windowsill for another year: it's just wax, string and fire; and so I drew the water to boil for the evening's pasta.  But the story would not leave me. Somehow, I felt that meant it needed to be shared.

May you find light in the darkness. May your good deeds be rewarded, but do not expect that as a matter of right. Respect your elders, but realize when the baton must be passed to the next generation. And remember that sometimes extending a helping hand--or flame--is not just noble, but its own reward.

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