This week, families around the world are gathering each night to light candles on the menorah, to commemorate the miracle of Channukah.
The story goes that the amount of oil left in the holy temple was only able to kindle the menorah for one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight nights, and thus was born the practice of lighting one candle each night, for eight nights.
If we only light eight candles, why then does each Channukah menorah have a place for a ninth candle?
This ninth candle, known in Hebrew as the shamash, is used to light the other candles.
Why do we need this extra candle, when we can easily light the other candles directly? We don't use an extra candle to light the candles to sanctify the start of the Sabbath or other holy days. Why do we do this for Channukah?
As I searched for an answer, I was reminded of the shamash's purpose. The word "shamash" means "helper" or "servant." The term can refer to a number of roles in Judaism. In this case, the shamash candle exists to serve the others. Its role is to stand by ready to reignite the flame of any extinguished light.
The shamash is distinguished; on many menorahs, it sits above or in front of the other eight candles. One might say it holds a position of privilege, afforded certain distinctions by nature of it's very existence.
We all benefit from varying degrees of privilege. Like the shamash, we can use that privileged position to serve others and bring light to those so often kept in the dark. Furthermore, we can do so without letting our own light cast a shadow on others, but by stepping back ready to give light when needed.
"The shamash is the candle that lights the others. Be a shamash." --- Rabbi David Wolpe
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