By Carol S. Pearson
When I married my husband, David, one of the extra joys that came with our union was experiencing Jewish rituals. I particularly love the story of Hanukkah, which tells how, after the desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC, the Jews were anxious about how to keep the eternal flame lit, since they had only enough untainted oil for one day and God had decreed that a fire must burn continuously upon the Outer Altar. Yet, the oil lasted for the eight days it took to prepare more.
Historians tell us that this miracle may not actually have happened, and the story was just added later, jazzing up the eight-day ritual of rededication of the Temple. Some scholars also question the traditional story, which says that the Jews were fighting for the right to practice their religion, arguing that in fact it was a conflict between orthodox and progressive Jewish sects in which the orthodox succeeded in stopping efforts to integrate wisdom from the Greek and Syrian traditions into Judaism.
But all this took place over 2,000 years ago, and I am intrigued with why it is that the story of an oil lamp inexplicably continuing to burn still engenders such a lovely holiday that so many of us love. My first doctorate was in literature, and I was taught that fiction often reflects the “truth of the human heart,” not necessarily what happened in any particular instance. In my Doctorate of Ministry and other Depth Psychology trainings, I learned about archetypal patterns in the human psyche that reflect human truths, which remain true even when situations evolve and change.
So, here goes my read on why people love the story of the oil lamp that stayed lit until the Temple was rededicated, even when reason says it could not do so:
- Viewed metaphorically, the burning oil lamp is the part of each of us that is our deeper self, which also is connected to the whole of our world and one another and could potentially be the part of us that is eternal. It also is the part that can light our way throughout our lives.
- The Temple is the structures in our lives that get disrupted from time to time. These often need to change, such as when we move from being children to adolescents; when we move from adolescence to being adults living on our own; at midlife when, ideally, our values and priorities change; in retirement when paid work no longer dominates our days, and as we age and our bodies begin to weaken. Such changes also can happen after a trauma or major loss, or when we disappoint ourselves by not living up to our values.
- The cleanup of our temples must occur when they become dirty, chaotic, or just get old and worn out—or, as in the story, when external forces impinge on us and require change. When we begin to reorder and redecorate without remembering what the temple venerates, our oil lamps go out. In Biblical numerology, eight is the number of regeneration and rebirth, where the structures of our life—and often our priorities—change. All this restores the temple if the essence of who we are continues to burn brightly.
Multitasking and the pressure in the modern world to constantly reinvent ourselves can lead us to try to be all things to all people, thus losing connection with our authenticity. Yet, if we keep the inner flame burning, we can demonstrate flexibility to express our uniqueness in many fulfilling ways, some of which even may surprise us.
For most of us, our first response is to fight against change, wanting things to remain as they were. But the miracle happens: the inner flame stays bright much longer than we anticipate it will, so we have time to allow our conscious ego to learn how it is that we can adapt and also stay true to who, at best, we are. This process does not literally happen in eight days. Seven, in Jewish tradition, is the number of the completion of living in the natural world. Eight is about graduating to the next level, one that allows miracles to occur—whether this takes minutes, years, decades, or lifetimes.
Like all wisdom tradition narratives, this one is layered. It can mean one thing to Orthodox Jews, another to Conservatives or Reformed, and something else to any of us who can learn the less specific, more archetypal lesson of a universal human story.
Or, it can just remind those of us feeling a bit stressed, during whatever holiday we celebrate, that our energy will hold out, and eventually a wonderful magical moment where the transcendent peeks through will gift us with its presence, however fleeting that might be.