As Chanukah approaches, I am pondering how to model my life after the chanukiah, the special 9-branched Chanukah menorah we light to celebrate the Festival of Lights. Maybe it’s an odd thing, to want to imitate a candelabra, but the more I ponder the wisdom in its example, the more I want to be a human version.
Above anything, it is anavah, or humility, that I see gleaming from those luminary branches. The kind of humility that respects its own dignity and owns its right to shine, to be admired. The kind that relishes in its purpose of bringing warmth and light, and sharing both freely. The chanukiah teaches us lessons about service, self-respect, humility, and living our lives with wholehearted abandon.
In the ancient Jewish discipline of growth in practical holiness, called Mussar, there are character traits, or middot (sing. middah), that each Jew should meticulously develop on his or her journey toward becoming more like the Creator. The foundational character quality, in my opinion, is anavah, or humility. The Jewish concept of anavah is that of a delicate balance between recognizing one’s intrinsic value and dignity as a creature made in the image of G-d, while also understanding that we are “but dust, and to dust we shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
Anavah beckons us to see ourselves on equal footing with all who have been made in G-d’s image as we likewise have been; we are neither elevated above, nor cowering below, anyone else. When we see ourselves in proper relationship to others, and to G-d Himself, we are internalizing anavah.
In truth, every other middah hangs on the string of a proper self-view, like pearls on a strand. Thus anavah is the very first place we begin our journey of transforming into the likeness of G-d through the example of our Messiah, and it is the thread that runs through every other quality we take on. Yeshua, our Great Rabbi and the foremost Master of applying Torah to the inner man, instructed His talmidim, His disciples, saying,
“But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28).
It is this principle we see illustrated when we look at the chanukiah. When we light the candles each night, we always begin in the very middle, with the shamash. The shamash is the central candle, and it is elevated above all the others. Shamash means “servant” in Hebrew, and this central candle has the honor of lighting all the other candles in the candleabra. The shamash stands as a powerful word picture for the way humble service can actually lift us up. We see that the shamash receives honor, not because it is literally higher than the other candles, but because it is the servant to all the other candles at its sides. This is why it is the first lit, and why it sits above the rest. Indeed, it is lifted up because it has a special purpose to serve, just as Yeshua taught that the key to being first is to make oneself a servant to all. We can see the shamash imitating our Master Yeshua with this attitude, the one we have been commanded to take on, too.
Even the position of the shamash – the very center of the Chanukah menorah – speaks of its connection to anavah, for anavah is most fully expressed in a balanced view of oneself, or, we could say, a centered view. When we light the menorah from the middle, we remember that to embody anavah is to walk in balance, and tip neither into self-debasement wherein we deny the value imbued to us by the Creator, nor into pride, wherein we forget that we depend on that very Creator for even our lifebreath. The shamash reminds us to occupy the center, where we hold our value as dear, and also that of our neighbor; where we recognize our utter dependence on G-d, and also embrace our worthiness to accept His love and provision.
The final lessons we can draw from the chanukiah are lessons in living wholeheartedly, embracing the beauty of soul and purpose that G-d has placed within each one of us, and using them to draw people to G-d. Yeshua also admonished his disciples with these words:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
He instructs His followers to purposefully attract attention to themselves through their good deeds. Like the chanukiah, which is lit and set in a window for all to gaze upon, so we are to light up our own lives with the good deeds sparked by love for G-d, so that others may gaze upon them and see the One Whom No Eye Has Seen. It strikes me that in order to intentionally draw attention to ourselves, we must walk in anavah. We must hold our own value and dignity in one hand, and our utter dependence on G-d in the other. We must simultaneously acknowledge that we have something beautiful to behold, while also being mindful that it is tucked away within our “earthen vessels.” Like the chanukiah, we are beautiful to gaze upon when we are lit with the light of Messiah, and like a lamp on a stand, we will draw people in who need to be warmed, lit up, and drawn to the Source of our light.
All of these lessons and more we can hold before our eyes as we light the shamash each night of Chanukah, and as we watch its flame spread from one candle to the next, until the final night when the menorah burns full and bright for the world to see outside our windows. Whether you light a physical menorah this season or not, may we all, as followers of our Jewish Messiah, light the flame of anavah within our hearts, serving those around us with humility, drawing them in to share the glow and the warmth of our Creator.
Kari is a follower of Yeshua who has been on a mission to uncover the Jewish Jesus, and rediscover her own family’s disconnected Jewish ancestry. She’s converting to seal the reunification. She and her husband (who was raised in a Conservative Jewish home and came to Yeshua in his mid-twenties) are raising their five daughters to love both their Jewish heritage and their Jewish Messiah. Kari spends most of her time homeschooling, drinking coffee, reading, writing, wiping peanut butter off of walls and (no joke) taking long walks on the beach. She and her family recently relocated to the Santa Barbara, California area, and hope to never live surrounded by land again!