Lingering, Lights and Longing

Posted | by Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann | Posted in Ideas that Challenge

In this holiday season, too much of our lives are determined by desire. We are bombarded by the newest toys we must have. We obsess about the plans we painstakingly make. We long for friends and family from afar to be in our midst.

Some of those desires uplift us. Some are imposed upon us. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the blizzard of questions and assumptions faced by students navigating to and through high school toward a future college. Too often, for young adults and those who love them the holiday season can feel like trial by query. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Where did you apply?” “How many schools?” “What’s your safety school?” “What do you think you’ll major in?” While the questioners are often well meaning, the degree of desire increases exponentially with each question.

Students, how can you remove the heavy mantle of other people’s needs, anxieties and expectations and determine your own desires? How can you approach this season of evaluations and essays, deadlines and decisions from a place of elevation and uplift? Just as this season brings pressure, so too, it can bring clarity. At this time when days are short and darkness comes quickly, we traditionally and instinctively infuse the holiday season with light—light, which can help us remember what is worth waiting for.

The central symbol of Chanukah is the menorah. Simple or ornate, it holds eight candles, one new candle lit on each of the eight nights of the holiday and one additional sole candle, called the shamash, the server. The candles for each night are lit, not by a match, but by the small flame of the shamash. In Jewish tradition, theshamash is thought to hold hidden light, strength not only for its own glow, but also to illumine a path for others. The flame of the shamash extends strength to uncover courage, to give birth to hope, to harken awareness. Amidst the darkness of limited vision, of generalized and undisputed expectations, of a narrow view of success, of unbridled competition, of uncritical thinking and unacknowledged feeling, let the shamash, the small candle of strength illuminate, for both students and those who love them, deeper desires.

The commandment to light the menorah is widely recognized. What is less well known is the tradition to watch the candles as they slowly burn down each night. What might we learn about ourselves, about our desires, if we sit with those flickering flames, if we enter into a dream state looking into the light, untroubled by expectations, undisturbed by anxiety? What might we discover if we find ourselves meditating, contemplating, closing out the calls of competition, masking the marketplace, refusing the ratings?

This season, whatever our religious background, whatever our spiritual practice, let the metaphor of theshamash, of light engendering light help us to quell the chatter, invite understanding and unite us with our deepest desires. Here, for each night, is a question in service to the light. Like the shamash, let them kindle others, ignite discussion with those we love about what matters, awakening our own desire for purpose in this season of holiday light and of love.

What do I wonder about?
What are my gifts and strengths?
What have my mistakes and disappointments taught me?
When do I feel alive with learning?
What would I sacrifice for?
What do I do that inspires dignity and respect?
How do I want to make a difference in the world?
What could college or my next stage be?

As we ask our questions, as we come in touch with our deepest desires, as we create clarifying conversations this holiday season, let us remember the wisdom of educator and activist John Gardner,

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.”

May the holidays be filled with warmth, with wisdom and with love.

Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann is Senior Associate Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University. She co-chaired the Campus Climate Study Group of Stanford’s Task Force on Student Mental Health and Well Being and has been an advisor to Challenge Success since its inception. She teaches and lectures widely on rabbinical ethics, the relationship between religion and education, and social justice.