One day this Chanukah 2017 I shared two Chanukah stories with my 7th graders at the Maimonides School in Albany. They asked, “Hey, both these stories are about Chanukah in the forest, deep in the woods. How come?” I started to explain that back then forests were everywhere, and to get from one village to another you had to pass through forests, and even I remember when Empire Commons, Nanotech Complex and even Crossgates were all woods. It wasn’t even that long ago. But their question got me thinking, and it made me realize a deeper life message, but before we get into that, first the two stories.
I’ll first share the synopsis of each as well as links to a more complete version on Chabad.org. They are old classics, Chassidic Chanukah stories that we grew up with. We will get to the message afterwards.
(1) THE VANISHING FLAME
Reb Boruch of Mezibuzh (1753-1811) was a grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. One year, on the first night of Chanukah he was standing around the Menorah with his disciples, but the flame kept going out. Every time he tried to relight the flame it would go out. This went on for a long time. After a while a Chassid burst into the door. He was full of snow, worn out from his travels but delighted to be there. He told everyone that he got lost in an unfamiliar woods, the darkness set in and he was unable to find his way. Suddenly a dancing single flame appeared before his eyes and he followed it, it went out a bunch of times, but kept reappearing, and it led him back to the path, out of the forest and here to the synagogue of Reb Baruch! So, that’s where the flame kept disappearing to!
Here’s the story link on Chabad.org: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1125/jewish/The-Vanishing-Flame.htm
(2) THE TALL CANDLES
A Chassid of the Rebbe Maharash (1834-1882), named Psachya of Kherson had business in the forest. Perhaps he was a lumber merchant. One time, long before Chanukah, the Rebbe Maharash advised him to always take extra large candles along, just in case he’d have to be in the woods over Chanukah. But the Rebbe strangely insisted on him taking supersized candles. Psachya thought it a bit odd for the Rebbe to give him Chanukah advice long before the holiday and was a little perplexed about the need for huge candles, but since the Rebbe said it, that’s what he did. And then, on Chanukah, he was deep in the woods on a business venture, and he was attacked by thieves (some say it was his own employees who turned on him) and stole his money. But now they had no choice but to kill him, they said, for he would certainly turn them into the authorities. Psachya remembered his Rebbe’s words, and asked for a last wish to light his Chanukah candles, to complete his life on earth with a Mitzvah. They might have been murderous thieves, but they too had something of a heart or code of honor, so they obliged. He lit his tall candles with the greatest of emotion, and as they were tall, big, thick candles they burned long and they burned bright. Their flames were noticed in the woods, and people came by and Psachya was saved.
Here’s the story link on Chabad.org: http://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/article_cdo/aid/2765637/jewish/The-Miracle-of-the-Long-Candles.htm
So, what’s up with the deep woods? Why all this Chanukah talk about lights in forests?
True, Chanukah (especially in Chabad Chassidic lens) is obsessed with lights in (and overcoming) darkness, and yes, historically, back in that time, forests were a much bigger part of life than they are now – when its just for hiking and camping and other limited recreation for most of us. But as the 7th graders pointed out, there’s got to be more to this forest emphasis!
Perhaps, in a metaphorical sense, the forest isn’t only at the edge of town. The deep, dark, cold forest can be in our own mind. The darkness can be within. We can lose our way, lose sight of the path, stumble on bramble, not be able to tell one tree from the next, and have no idea where we are going.
These Chassidic two stories, put together, may be telling us something profound and relevant about dealing with darkness within, the forests inside our mind:
#1: No matter how dark, if you see a dancing, flickering, glimmer of light – grab onto it, don’t let it go, follow its lead best you can. True, it may be 99% dark and all forest all around you, but try to focus on that glimmer, that bright flame, see if that can help you.
#2: The dancing glimmer of a flame can only last so long. It’s not sustainable by itself. Try to prepare yourself for forest darkness and all that may lurk within it by keeping big, thick, tall candles with you. These big candles can represent the array of tools and types of systems that support light: coping mechanisms, a support network, a good therapist or teacher/mentor, close friends, loving family, meaningful inspirational study, good habits or routine, Mitzvos and good deeds, or whatever nurtures and uplifts you.
This message can be true of all types of internal darkness that we may face: emotional, mental, spiritual and religious. We can use the message of both these stories, indeed, we need both to spark the uplift and sustain it.