One of the fundamental tools used by Mussar as it is taught and practiced by the Center for Contemporary Mussar is the idea of the Ner Tamid. It describes in a phrase the vision of ourselves being the best we can be with regard to the others in our lives.
When we think of the Ner Tamid, we also think of the various artistic interpretations it has been given in front of the many synagogue arks that we have seen in the course of our lives.
We forget, perhaps, that the Ner Tamid described in the Torah was actually the Menorah, the seven branched candelabra that was constructed to face the Holy of Holies of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, in the wilderness and then transposed to the Temple in Jerusalem.
It was the very same Menorah that the Maccabees sought to re-kindle with purified oil after their successful defeat of the Greco-Syrians. It was the story of the oil’s lasting for eight days instead of one that gave rise to the particular form of the Menorah, the Hanukkiah with eight lights, that we light during the ritual of Hanukah.
Viewed from the Mussar perspective, then, Hanukkah can be understood as the struggle to rekindle our own Ner Tamid after it has been made impure or temporarily extinguished. In order to do so, we must first learn to recognize how vulnerable our Ner Tamid is to being obscured. How quickly anger, envy, or resentment creep into our vision such that our Ner Tamid becomes hidden.
Whatever historical circumstances led to the Maccabean revolt and however the heirs to that revolt embraced it ritually, we can see behind the story an unarguable experience of being human: regardless of how much work we do to maintain our Ner Tamid through the application of Torah and Middot, it can be extinguished by our response to others in either trivial or more serious encounters.
Thus the Mussar work of Hanukkah is to create for ourselves a ritual, a “lighting of the lights” that first recognizes when our light has gone out and how we can redouble our efforts through study, journaling, mitzvot, and ma’asim tovim, good deeds, to rekindle our Ner Tamid with as pure an oil as we are capable of. Perhaps each night as we light the candles we might recall or recite our Ner Tamid, or even encourage others among our families and friends to think about their own Ner Tamid and light it together with the candles.
May the combined light of all of our Ner Tamid contribute to a world of both outer and inner light.
Wish warm wishes for a Happy Hanukkah,
Rabbi Ira Stone