In North America many people use the word “menorah” in reference to the chanukiah in which we light candles on Chanukah. Usually, however, the menorah is the sacred seven-branched lamp of old. There is one place in Tanach where the word “menorah” points towards a humble article of furniture, not at the golden one used in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and later in the Mikdash (Temple). Nestled within the stories about the prophet Elisha, a menorah is an actual lamp inside someone’s home:
One day Elisha visited Shunem. A wealthy woman lived there, and she urged him to have a meal; and whenever he passed by, he would stop there for a meal. Once she said to her husband, “I am sure it is a holy man of God who comes this way regularly. Let us make a small enclosed upper chamber and place a bed, a table, a chair, and a menorah (lampstand) there for him, so that he can stop there whenever he comes to us.” (Ⅱ Kings 4:8-10)
What did these people do? They created a comfy space for their guest so that he had his basic needs taken care of, because he was on the road doing Hashem’s work. I often read this story (and the one before it in the book) around Chanukah (and we’ll study it at shul this year), because they tell of oil and light and miracles within the home. These stories are about personal miracles, and “small” acts of chesed (loving-kindness) and compassion that lead to lives being saved.
We learn in Torah that part of the act of taking care of others involves noticing what they actually need, even when it might be surprising or even confusing for us: “But you shall surely open your hand to him and surely lend to him enough for his want that he has” (D’varim 15:8).
R’ Shlomo Wolbe teaches us that we take part in creation through performing acts of chesed. He uses the verse I just quoted to remind us how complicated this can actually be. We don’t have to make other people rich (...lend him enough), but as we are giving, we must learn to pause and listen closely to the person’s situation so that we can understand what their innermost being lacks and is crying out for. Chesed isn’t quantifiable. Any act of kindness can be chesed—whether you are visiting a newborn, giving money, making cookies for a sad friend or listening calmly to a grumpy teenager. Chesed demands that we pause in our assumptions about who is in need and who can fend for themselves. It calls us to bring compassion and understanding to our care for others.
People all around us in our communities and city are lonelier, poorer, less healthy, and much colder than in previous years. Chanukah is the perfect moment to celebrate the chesed done to us and the chesed we can perform for those around us. When we light Chanukah candles we often refer back to the golden Menorah, the one that sent out its light from within the Temple walls to light the whole world with its pure flames.
I suggest this year we all add another image as we light our chanukiot, and remember the small menorah in the Shunammite woman’s home, a menorah that teaches us about the miracle of attentive kindness.
Rabbah Gila Caine.
[This essay was originally published in the AJN]