It was only a few weeks ago that I would watch the missiles lighting up the Israeli night sky. In the moments before they exploded, it reminded me of the light against the dark image that I associate with the holiday of Chanukah: lighting those single candles juxtaposed to the endless black of the winter night.

Light has always had the force to be the harbinger of evil or of joy. In ancient times, when only fire was the means for light at civilization’s disposal, it was hard to know if someone was reaching toward you out of belligerence, need or kindness.

Light has always had the force to be the harbinger of evil or joy

In Judaism, we have always used fire to connect us to something higher.

We mark our days and lifecycle events with a fire. We begin our separation of the week from Shabbat with the lighting of candles. We make havdalah, separating the holy from the mundane, by lighting another fire, and then still another after Shabbat when we celebrate with a melaveh malkah to help us linger a bit with the holy day. It is customary to walk our brides and grooms down the aisle holding candles—again, reaching for something higher, individuals leaving a single life to build a home together.

In ancient times, our rabbis had us light fires on hilltops in order to communicate when the moon was sighted in Jerusalem in order to establish the new month, the Jewish calendar, by which we still live today.

Judaism’s fire-lighting has always been one of building. We celebrate our days, our weeks, our months and our relationships with a fire, literally and figuratively.

The first instance in the Torah where it is noted that a fire had been extinguished is in the mention of our matriarch Rebecca, who had just married Isaac. Upon moving into the old home of her mother-in-law, Sarah, she reignited a prior light. The Midrash explains that the building of a new couple, by Isaac bringing his new bride into his mother’s tent, brought back the woman’s mystic light, the light that illuminates a Jewish home.

In Judaism, when a fire is extinguished, something larger is lost—which is why our tradition has us in the business of lighting candles, and not blowing them out. Think of the memorial candle you light as a way of remembering a loved one. (We allow them to burn out.) Many synagogues have a ner tamid over their ark: a national, eternal light, placed before the place where Jews keep their most cherished possession, the Torah. Hence this light connects us to the Torah, to G‑d, and to the Jews who came before us, and those who will surely come after us. This light, we know, will never go out; it is indeed eternal.

In Judaism, when a fire is extinguished, something larger is lost

In the Torah, fire as a force of destruction is in G‑d’s domain. Throughout the Torah, it is only G‑d who has the power to destroy through fire, where He consumes or kills. Clearly, fire as a force of destruction is the domain of the Omnipotent. But, alas, the Jewish people have also had to go to war, carrying those torches, to light their path in fighting. But that is why we are mandated to carry the Holy Ark, the Aron Kodesh, alongside all the torches. This Ark, the container and origin of our holiness, is the light that is to remain our true compass. This is why the Ark is still symbolized by that ner tamid, that guiding light hanging before it.

Additionally, the light over the Ark is a composite of many actual candles that were lit in our past. The Jews were led by a light, a pillar of fire, through their 40 years of wandering in the desert. The mishkan, the antecedent to the grand Temples in Jerusalem, had a menorah lit daily. Then came the two Temples, built during the period when we were self-governed in ancient Israel, where a delicately carved gold masterpiece menorah was lit on a daily basis. The ner tamid and ark stand front and center as a reminder of the components of our third Temple waiting to be rebuilt.

It is no wonder that the lasting, “winning” image of the Romans led by Titus following their conquest of Israel and its Temple is of their carrying our Temple’s menorah back to Rome. They had thought they had extinguished the Jewish light. They had captured our vehicle for lighting fires. Now we would no longer be able to light our menorah, no longer be able to build. Or so they thought. But the main flame that we ignite is beyond the physical. It is symbolic. Which is why the symbol of the menorah is so powerful. When we light the menorah, we are igniting a flame within us. We are connecting to our core, our soul. But as Jews, as soul is only a part of a whole. We are also connecting our soul to those who came before us.

When we light the menorah, we are igniting a flame within us

When we light the Chanukah menorah, and look at the light it generates against the backdrop of that endless black winter night, we are lighting and igniting.

We are lighting the candles that our ancestors struggled to light during the Holocaust, when it seemed like our light had almost gone out. We are lighting the candles that our ancestors in centuries past struggled to light in Syria, Iraq, Russia, Poland and Italy, when it seemed like Titus might have actually won. We are reigniting our ancestors’ spirit and conviction to light as Jews, to live as Jews. We are not only resurrecting their memories, but are binding our souls together into one link, one chain.

And while it seems like when we light our candles we do so in isolation, against all kinds of other fires, other lights—bigger lights, superficial lights, dangerous fires, missiles, etc.—our little candles have a prior flame they are connecting with, but also a future flame.

Like the image of those bonfires that the rabbis lit on a mountaintop in ancient Jerusalem, so that the Jews in Lod could see it, and in turn light their own, to allow the next community in the distance to know that the rabbis had established the new month; when we light our menorah, we are igniting our souls, connecting both to the Jewish souls of centuries past, and we simultaneously leave a flame ignited for future souls, our children, their children.

We are igniting all the way back to the origin of our light, of our building, the light of the Temple, the light of the mini-Temple: the Jewish home, the tent of Sarah and Rebecca. Our light gathers strength from our past that enables it to propel forward, toward a future light, the light that will allow us the ultimate of building, the return of the Temple to Jerusalem, the return of her light to her glory, and then, in turn, the return of a light where the Jewish people will be able to be “a light unto the nations,” sharing that eternal light with the rest of the human family.