We need to listen to the story that the
Chanukah lichtelech (flames) tell us – The Rebbe
Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn
A little light dispels a lot of darkness
– The Sages
Light is the core of physics. Light – energy
– defines the very parameters of existence.
In modern physics it is now commonly accepted
that light, or in more general terms, electromagnetic radiation
(microwaves, radio waves, light rays, x rays, gamma rays)
has a dual nature: it behaves both like a wave and a particle.
The same has been proven regarding the behavior of subatomic
matter: it appears as both a particle and a wave.
And this is no small matter: A particle and
a wave are opposites. A particle is an entity confined to
a very small volume, while a wave is spread out over a large
region of space. How light can be both a wave (a
field of energy) and a particle (a discrete entity) remains
one of the biggest mysteries in science, yet it has been proven
time and again despite its inherent paradox.
A fascinating fact: Long before science discovered
the importance of light, the Kabbalah uses light (ohr)
as the ultimate metaphor to describe G-d’s ‘expression,’ i.e.
the Divine transmission – the energy that brings existence
into being and makes up all of existence. Light reflects,
expresses and transmits the Divine energy. Existence is ‘light’
emitted from the Divine.
And like physics would later discover, Jewish
mysticism (as explained at length in Chassidic thought, see
for example, the discourse Vayeilech
5666 from the Rebbe Sholom DovBer) describes
the dual nature of light. Light combines both substance and
no substance: it has no substance of its own; it always reflects
its (luminary) source. Yet, precisely because of its transparent
bittul (selflessness), light purely reflects and channels
the deepest ‘substance’ of the source, with no ‘personality’
of its own to get in the way.
Light, with all its paradoxical qualities, is
our best metaphor for understanding the process of creation.
By contemplating the paradox of light -- that it is clearly
real and yet appears to have no substance or shape -- we can
approach an even greater paradox: the unity of our physical
universe with the ‘universe’ of G-d. The mysterious
qualities of light illustrate the main truth of our
physical universe: that an existence must not be defined only
in terms of its own being, but as a means to illuminate a
higher truth. Light becomes both a pure expression of the
Divine and the metaphor that, through our reason and other
faculties, allows us to experience the ways of G-d.
Light straddles the defining line that runs
between the physical and the spiritual. Light – sans weight,
sans mass, sans just about any of matter's properties – is
the most ethereal of physical “things.”' Perceptibly real,
yet free of the qualities we ascribe to the objects of our
perceptible universe, light serves as a bridge of allegory
between a mind grounded in a material environment and the
metaphysical abstractions it contemplates.
Light, in other words has a dual quality of
both particle and wave. It is a defined entity of its own
with its own distinct ‘space,’ yet its ‘particle’ identity’
is wave-like, spread out like an energy field, carrying Divine
energy into existence, like ocean waves washing up on the
Chanukah is the Festival of Light. All the events
of Chanukah are remembered and celebrated with light. We kindle
the Chanukah flames to commemorate the victory of the ‘few
over the many,’ the ‘weak over the mighty’ and the miracle
of discovering the small crucible of olive oil which then
burned for eight days. The Temple was subsequently rededicated
(hence the name Chanukah which means ‘dedication’). All this
is commemorated with light.
Chanukah – like light – is paradoxical:
The essential miracle – and message – of Chanukah
is the dominance of light over dark, of spiritual radiance
over material gloom. Even in dark times, even when the mighty
materialistic Syrians/Greeks desecrated all things sacred,
even as all sources of pure light (from pure olive oil) were
gone, ultimately one crucible of purity remained, and revived
the soul. The powerful quality of light – even a minimal amount
– prevailed over the strongest forms of darkness.
And the light that emerges from darkness is
the strongest light of all. As the Ramban writes (beginning
of Parshat Behaalotcho), that ‘these [Chanukah] flames will
never be extinguished’ (unlike the Temple Menorah which ceased
shining after the Temple’s destruction). Light that prevails
after being challenged by darkness is a light that can never
This, of course, is the root of all paradoxes:
It’s one thing to find light in good times. It’s a completely
other matter to find it in darkness. Chanukah is a time when
we face darkness, yet we emerge with even greater light.
Thus the Chanukah lights are kindled in a fashion
that reflects their inherent paradox – a paradox that integrates
“particle” and “wave”: The light of Chanukah permeates and
fuses both the ‘particle’ world – a very specific space and
defined state of being, reflecting the discreteness and diversity
of the material world, and the ‘wave’ world – a large field
of energy that unites the entire spectrum.
In space: We light the Chanukah flames “at the
door of the home facing outward.” It’s in your home and all
that a home implies, facing the outside and all that ‘outside’
In time: “From when the sun sets” – we light
the candles at night. Night represents darkness, and the lights
of Chanukah have to pierce and illuminate the shadows.
The actual lamp and lighting process itself
entails opposite forces uniting: A lamp consists of oil, a
wick, and a vessel containing them so that the oil is fed
through the wick to a burning flame. All these particles together
create a wave of light and warmth that is more than the sum
of their parts. The flame and the wick defy each other, while
joining forces and causing each other to act against their
inherent natures as they attach to each other: The flame licking
ever upward, only to be grounded by the material wick. The
oil too plays a conflicting role, as it both fuels the destruction
of the wick and yet ultimately sustains it. Were it not for
the oil, the wick would be immediately consumed by the flame;
yet at the same time, the oil is acclimating the wick to the
flame, in effect transforming the wick into fuel for the flame.
The oil actually requires the wick to channel its substance
and convert it into an illuminating flame. Fusion of oil (fuel)
and wick (and vessel) – wave and particle – create light.
The colors of the flame also reflect a dual
personality: ‘Nehura uchoma’ – the ‘dark radiance,’
burning close to the wick, and ‘nehura chivra’ – the
white flame farther from the wick, the ‘bright radiance.’
The nature of light is such that it unites:
one flame’s light merges with another – like one large wave.
Yet we light the Chanukah flames as individual ‘particles’
– each flame must be lit separately (with sufficient space
between them so they do not become one), each night a new
“These [Chanukah] lights are sacred, and we
are not permitted to make use of them, but only to look at
them,” yet we benefit from them in many ways. Indeed, this
message itself (that these light are sacred) offers us the
greatest benefit of all: By not being permitted to make use
of the lights, only to look at them, we learn from them how
to sublimate ourselves and to become reflections of a Higher
truth than ourselves, rather than indulging our needs and
doing things only for our own benefit.
We refrain from work while the flames are burning.
Yet, the days of Chanukah are workdays. We gather with family
and friends, party, eat latkes, play dreidel – celebrate the
‘particles’ – while we always remain focused on the deeper
spiritual light waves radiating from Chanukah.
The quantum particle/wave paradox of light –
which defines the very essence of Chanukah – can help explain
many other unusual elements in Chanukah. For example:
The Talmud (Shabbat 22b) discusses the essence
of the mitzvah of Chanukah lighting. Is the primary mitzvah
the ‘kindling’ or the ‘placement’ of the menorah? Perhaps
the difference of these two approaches can be understood in
context of light’s paradoxical properties of particle and
wave: Is the primary focus of Chanukah light the location,
the space – the ‘placement,’ the effect of the light on physical
space (the particle aspect), or is it the act of creating
and drawing down the light – the ‘kindling’? The conclusion
is that the ‘kindling’ is the essence of the mitzvah; the
wave aspect is dominant.
The vessel too poses an interesting paradox.
Our Rabbis wonder whether the vessel itself is an actual part
of the mitzvah of the Chanukah candles, or does the mitzvah
entail just wick and oil (and the vessel is incidental). The
question is to what extent does the role of the vessel play
in the Chanukah lights. The ruling opinion is that the vessel
is part of the mitzvah. According to the other opinion, the
mitzvah is the flame that is lit in the vessel, not the vessel
itself. The vessel or container represents
the material world, which needs to be transformed into a container
and fuel for Divine light, until the vessel itself is revealed
to be an extension of the light. The issue at hand is to what
extent does the vessel become one with the light. This too can be understood in context
of trying to determine what exactly is the relationship and
balance between the particle and wave aspects of light.
The list goes on. Chanukah can teach us much
about the nature of light, and light can illuminate many aspects
of Chanukah. Using this template as an invitation, perhaps
scientists and theologians, physicists and Torah scholars,
psychologists and soul doctors, can explore further
parallels between both these worlds, helping uncover the Unified
Field Theory that unites them (us) all.
What truly strikes me in all of this is the
proactive role Chanukah demands of us:
In physics, light is an existing entity that
we humans try to understand, we are amazed at its paradoxical
qualities and finally develop methods how to tap into it to
better our lives. In Torah, Chanukah teaches us how we can
generate light, how we can create unity within paradox.
We are not simply observers – ‘observant’ Jews – watching
from the sidelines and studying phenomenon around us; we actually
initiate and create the phenomena.
And perhaps, therein lies yet another – maybe
the most important – element in Quantum Chanukah: We are not
just mere observers. The observer actually affects the observee.
Our attitudes, our actions in fact change the course of this
world. When we light Chanukah candles we release new energy
into the world that shapes the future.
Think of that when you light the Chanukah flames.
Listen to their story; they have much to tell.
“These [Chanukah] lights are sacred, and we
are not permitted to make use of them, but only to look at
them, in order to offer thanks and praise to Your great Name,
for Your miracles, for Your wonders and for Your acts of salvation.”
 A wave is not just a bunch of particles moving in a wave pattern;
it is a distinct form of energy, as different from traveling
particles ‘as the notion of waves on a lake from that of
a school of fish swimming in the same direction’ (Victor
Weisskopf, Physics in the Twentieth Century – selected
essays, p. 30).
 See Rabbi Dovber of Lubavitch, Shaarei Orah (Gates of
Radiance), Ki Atah Neiri. Just published in English
 See Zohar I:51a. Shaarei Orah ibid.
 See Pri Etz Chaim, Shaar Chanukah. Cited
in Shaloh, mesechta Tomid.
 See Avnei Neizer, Orach Chaim, 500.
 See Likkutei Sichos vol. 5 p. 445-446.