By candle light, one can mark each passing hour in the cascade of wax. As wick gives way to flame, the blaze dwindles and the night yields to shadow. To live in the ephemeral glow of candles is to know that light is finite and darkness inevitable.
Yet we live and breathe not by candle light, but by Edison’s incandescent bulb and the fluorescent innovations that followed. In contrast to candles, the electric bulb is a hundred times brighter. Its light rarely dims or flickers. It seems nearly infinite when set aside the sputtering tallow flame.
No doubt, we gained immeasurably when we gave up the wax candle for the electric blaze, but one wonders if we also lost immeasurably in the exchange.
In this week’s portion, Chukath, there is a passing of the torch. The life of Aaron, the high priest, is set to expire, but before he is gathered to his people, God commands that his son be designated high priest in his stead. “The Lord said to Moses… ‘Take Aaron and Elazar his son, and bring them up to the Mountain upon the Mountain (Hebrew: Hor Hahar). There, you shall strip Aaron of his vestments, and put them on Elazar his son; and Aaron shall be gathered to his people, and there he shall die.” (Numbers 20:23-26)
While the foretelling of death is alarming, the awareness of the inevitable affords Aaron the contentment of watching his son don the garments of the high priest. “Happy is he who sees his crown given to his son,” quotes Rashi.
Before the advent of electricity, the Sabbath candles were kindled not only to honor the Sabbath but to illuminate the home. As dusk set in and the last rays of sun melted to darkness, Jewish families relied upon candles not only to see, but also to illuminate that which could not be seen.
In the half-light of the flame, the meal was all the more appreciated for its smell and taste. Not able to observe the full nuances of body language, one had to listen all the more attentively for the nuances of voice. It was natural to draw on memory to fill in the twinkle of an eye, the crack of a smile, or even one’s spouse’s silhouette. Yet the most important difference is spoken by the candles themselves. They say: ‘There is urgency to the evening. Do what needs be done. Speak which needs be spoken. Values, traditions, ideals that need be imparted, impart before the last candle burns to the wick and the light is gone.’
There is symbolism to Aaron being laid to rest in a place called Hor HaHar—a Mountain upon a Mountain. When one has seen to it that one’s progeny builds upon what one has built, it is indeed like placing a mountain upon another mountain. Yet without the sense that time wanes, without the specter of darkness just over the horizon, what urgency is there to give over what we have? What rush is there to don our children in that which we cherish most—the vestments of the high priest—the great mountain of our tradition?
Perhaps, it is time we forget Edison for an evening, and have a Friday-night meal with a few candles instead.