It was the night before Chanukah, and I was visiting a loved one at a therapeutic farm in Vermont. Tonight was the Yule ceremony, the traditional ceremony that the farm held each winter near the time of the solstice.
We all gathered outside the main house after dinner – residents, staff, and guests – and some of us held long torches as we prepared to make our way up the hill to find the Yule log. The darkness was lit by the light of the torches, and our path was illuminated by candles glowing inside white paper bags that had been placed in niches in the knee-high snow that blanketed the farm and hedged the path on either side.
Way up at the top of the hill we came to a clearing and stood in a circle around the Yule log. Standing together, holding our torches in the winter night, we sang some songs, and then it was time to bring the log down the hill to the dining room.
Barbara, a young, spunky residence advisor who seemed to find nothing too challenging if it needed to be done, pushed the log through the snow all the way to the main house. The dining room was set up with the chairs facing front, and Pierson took his place as master of ceremonies for the remainder of the evening.
Pierson and his wife had raised their family on the farm; he led the work program that engages farm residents in grounding, productive teamwork that sustains the farm community as it helps heal wounded souls.
Pierson explained the plan for the evening: anyone could come up and share something – a song, a poem, a story, anything that they had to offer – and then they would light a candle from the candle that had been suspended in the front of the room and add their candle to the other candles that will be lit.
Pierson sat down, and someone took his place in the front of the room. Now here’ s the thing – in the therapeutic farm, most people come and go. They’re there for a few months, often after an acute phase of their illness, and then they move on, either to a group residence, or to their own apartment in town, or back home to their family.
But on the farm there were a few people who were there permanently, who couldn’t make it outside and whose families supported a life-long stay at the farm. I had never met any of those people, but you could see one or two of them around, people who seemed sicker than the others, whom you never got to know at all, not even their names. People who, even in this place of distressed souls, seemed to live in the shadows.
Well, the first person who came to the front of the room was one of these people. And he sat down and took a guitar and sang a song. And then he stood up and took a candle and lit it and put down the first of what would be many candles. And I realized that I had never seen this person, I had never heard his voice, and I hadn’t really thought there was a person there, and here he was sitting in the front of the room, playing and singing a song for everyone and lighting the first candle.
And the next person who got up was a bearded man who said that he had been at the farm a while ago and had written this song for a woman he had loved whom he had met while he was here. And he sang a really beautiful song.
And this person was not like the first person, but he was obviously someone who had struggled and still did and always would, and here he was singing of his love. And he walked over and lit a candle and added it to the first one.
And then my own loved one got up. And she too played a song on her guitar. And then she went and lit a candle and added it to the others.
And the next night I was back at home preparing to light Chanukah candles with my family and feeling that, in the most real way, this was my very first Chanukah.
It was a night on which I felt that I understood for the first time the teaching of our sages of blessed memory: "The requirement of Chanuka is to light a candle in each house. But for those who glorify the commandments‹a candle is lit for each and every person." (Bavli Shabbat 21b)
Devora Steinmetz is a senior faculty member at Yeshivat Hadar, where she teaches Talmud and Midrash.