When we think about Chanukah, the primary image that comes to mind is the Chanukah candles. The ceremony of lighting the candles can be very moving and quite evocative, symbolizing growth and rebirth. The lighting is done at night, which stresses the idea of growth and strength even during dark times. Night is a time that we need candlelight to see; however, we are not supposed to use the light for our personal use rather only as an illumination for the spirit and inspiration to the soul.
The candles are lit in a certain order, starting on the first day with one candle and increasing to eight on the last day of Chanukah. There are two opinions of the order Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. This is the opinion of Bet Hillel in the Talmud, and they give their reason “ma’alin bakodesh ve’ein moridin”, we are supposed to always strive to increase in our holy deeds and not decrease. Beit Shammai ruled that the candles should be lit in the opposite order, the first night eight, the second night seven, and onward. This is because it is relating the candle lighting to the other week long holidays, and the Parei HaChag offered on Sukkot and Pesach.
But we all go with Beit Shammai’s ruling, internalizing the idea of increasing holiness, which is a lesson that should not be limited to Chanukah candles, rather applied to all areas of spiritual growth.
When praying, especially during public prayer that has a set formula, it is easy to lose focus and to miss out on the primary goal of prayer: a connection to God. We learn that when approaching prayer, the beginning of the prayers are of paramount importance, since if we start off with a small part that we are able to focus on, it can potentially connect us during the entire prayer: we ascend in holiness.
In the Torah we read about Jacob’s ladder. Spiritual growth is like a ladder: it is possible to ascend rung by rung. Dr. Bill Krieger, (of blessed memory) was very fond of this idea and he used to ask, “So if one angel is on the bottom and going up, while another angel was on the top, but going down, which one is closer to Hashem?”
He would answer, “The angel on the bottom going up is closer to Hashem, since in time he will actually attain his goal of closeness to Hashem.”
During the cold of the winter, at a time which is close to the solstice and the days are very short, we light Chanukah candles starting at one and increasing daily till the eighth day. The candles remind us to keep ascending the ladder of spiritual growth.