Shining light on Chanukah’s ‘love me’ message

  • AdinaRothNew
One of my favourite bedtime stories for my children is The Love-Me Bird by Joyce Dunbar. It’s a wise tale about a little bird who longs for someone to love her, and so she coos, over and over, “Love me, love me”.
by ADINA ROTH | Nov 29, 2018

A wise old owl tries to help the bird find love, but as long as she sings, “Love me, love me”, no one seems to come. And then the owl has an insight: “Sing a different tune,” he says, “how about, ‘Love you-ooo! Love you-ooo!’”

The Love-Me Bird changes her tune, and suddenly is surrounded by others, and finds love.

The central message of The Love-Me Bird is for children and adults alike: when you make it about yourself, people aren’t that interested. But show interest in another, and they will be drawn to you like bees to honey.

I believe Chanukah offers a similar message to grapple with. Light is the central theme of Chanukah and indeed, light is a very powerful metaphor. Light itself can be used in different ways. We can “be” the light, and proudly shine our light outwards, or we can offer our light as a way to encourage others to discover their own illuminations.

I once heard a rabbi talk about the deeper meaning of placing his chanukiah in his front window overlooking the street. The traditional understanding of placing the chanukiah in a prominent and public place is for the purpose of pirsumei nisah (publicising the miracle) of Chanukah.

Growing up, I had always understood this as a kind of “they tried to beat us, we won, and look at us now!” kind of message. But he said something very different.

According to the rabbi, when we place light in our windows in dark times, we communicate the most profound message; the very possibility of light! For him, the publicising of the light is not to brag, but to offer all people hope, to remind people (who might have forgotten) that their light too can shine.

I was very moved by his explanation. It was a simple interpretation of the mitzvah pirsumei nisah, but instead of the focus being on our story, it was about offering our story so people could remember and kindle their own light.

This rabbi’s message was a Chanukah version of our very own Nelson Mandela’s words “And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

There is a subtle but crucial difference between being a light for others to stare at and admire, and being a light that humbly models the very possibility of light itself. Perhaps this is why the term ohr lagoyim (a light unto the nations), mentioned by our prophet Isaiah, can be interpreted in different ways.

I have heard Jewish people say, “We are so amazing, look at our Nobel Prize winners, look at our Israeli innovation, look at us, look at us!” We know this!

But, as any psychologist might gently remind a client, the way to be liked is not to say, “Look at me, look at how amazing I am, love me, love-me!”

In a similar way to the rabbi’s interpretation of pirsumei nisah, can we conceive of ohr lagoyim as a way to offer our contribution to humanity humbly, and to seek, indeed demand, that same light in all people.

In some ways this is about the democratising of light. No one person or nation has the monopoly on light, wisdom, and illumination. But we shine our light as a reminder to all people that everyone has light, and is responsible to make it manifest.

This idea is mirrored in another Torah discussion about light. In Parshat Be’ha’alotcha, when Aaron is instructed to light the Menorah in the Mishkan (tabernacle), Rashi explains that Aaron was to hold the flame at a distance from the candelabra. By holding the lighting lamp in proximity to the cup but without actually touching it, the flame would then arise by itself.

The depth of this idea is profound: the lighting lamp simply holds its own light to reveal to the Menorah’s lamps the very possibility of their own generativity. Then, they create their own illumination, all by themselves.

As the Jewish people, we face forms of anti-Semitism from the right and the left. These are tough times in the world, with very few clear answers. But, as much as our defending impulse might be to croon like the Love-Me Bird, “Love me, love me, look at my light!”, the message of Chanukah is deeper and more subtle.

It applies to us as parents, as educators, as friends, and as a people. We shine light, not for admiration or triumph, but to offer the very possibility to every person to shine their own light, everywhere. Let’s croon, “Love you, love you” and see what happens.

  • Adina Roth is a clinical psychologist in private practice and a teacher of Jewish Studies. She runs an independent Barmitzvah and Batmitzvah programme in Johannesburg, and she teaches Tanach to adults.


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