Transcending Even Spiritual Self-Interest
The Chanukah hymn beginning HaNeiros Hallalu records another halachic requirement: “These lights are holy and we are not permitted to make use of them, only to look at them.” I.e., though the Chanukah candles must burn into the night, when their light would be useful, we are not allowed to make use of it. To ensure this, we light an extra candle, the shamash, and place it above the others, so that any unintentional benefit from the light is attributable to theshamash7 and not the lamps lit for the performance of the mitzvah.
These laws reflect the unique nature of this mitzvah. Though every mitzvahearns a reward, in certain cases the reward is spiritual, while in others it is also manifest in the material world. The visible light of the Chanukah candles indicates that the positive effects generated by this mitzvah are apparent in our material world as well as in the spiritual realm.
However, just as we do not make use of the light of the Chanukah lights for mundane purposes, our goal in performing this mitzvah is not material reward. We fulfill it only because “You have sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us,”8 without thought of reward or any other ulterior motive. This level of performance, avodah lishmah (“divine service for its own sake”), is the highest that can be attained through our own spiritual endeavors.9
Like much human behavior, even our divine service may be motivated by a desire for spiritual, if not material, rewards. The Chanukah lights teach us to transcend our tendencies toward self-interest and dedicate ourselves to serving G‑d for His sake alone. The Chanukah lights, which burn in the darkness of the night, demonstrate moreover that we can reach this advanced level of divine service, not only during daylight (which symbolizes manifest G‑dliness), but also in times when effort is necessary to transform the darkness around us.
Ha-nei-rot ha-lo-lu o-nu mad-li-kin
Al ha-te-shu-ot ve-al ha-ni-sim ve-al ha-nif-la-ot,
She-a-see-ta la-avo-tei-nu ba-ya-mim ha-heim biz-man ha-zeh,
Al ye-dei ko-ha-ne-cha ha-ke-do-shim,
Ve-chol she-mo-nat ye-mei cha-nu-kah ha-nei-rot ha-la-lu ko-desh hem,
Ve-ein la-nu re-shut le-hish-ta-meish ba-hen,
E-lo lir-o-tan bil-vad, ke-dei le-ho-dot u-le-ha-leil le-shim-cha ha-ga-dol
Al ni-se-cha ve-al nif-le-o-te-cha ve-al ye-shu-o-te-cha.