Simhat Torah is a time to end and start, a time of cycles, a time when change and continuity meet, spiral each other, and resolve their differences. We repeat the cycle of Torah study, the same way as we have done for so many many years. We look for and discover new ways to see the Torah, new eyes to see it with. So, this seems an opportune moment to share a story of cycles. It was written for a different holy moment, that of making candles between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Still, it is a story of cycles, and appropriate for a day that commemorates learning and Torah study. This story was written for two women in my life, one who taught me the candle making ritual, and one whom I taught it to. Though neither is ordained, these women are among my Rabbis, in the truest sense of the word. They are my teachers and I honour that.
Toyva always loved candle-making. She loved it when she was a tiny girl, loved it with a depth and a strength none could understand. She loved the smell and the wax dripping over her fingers and the extra glow that the light took on. She loved the candles themselves appearing from the chaos and the mess. She loved the feeling of creation that the candles gave her – she was powerful, like God! She could turn nothing – mere bits of melted wax in a big cauldron, little pieces of string – into beautiful, useful candles.
She didn’t think much of the people, though. There was her sister, giggling with some friends about her new husband, her mother fussing, forever fussing. There was her aunt complaining about some ache in her neck or arm and her grandmother who just sat there, not making a single candle. None of them seemed to really care about candle-making.
Toyva jumped with the excitement and joy of it all, only to get hit on the head by her mother’s knuckles. “Don’t you care about the candle-making, Toyva?” her mother said. “Stop jumping and squealing.” Toyva sighed. Her mother didn’t understand anything about her or about candle-making.
It didn’t matter. The candle making was beautiful. She had made a perfect candle – creamy, straight, with a flower petal pressed in when her mother wasn’t looking to give it a beautiful scent.
Toyva was so excited – candle-making was coming up and she always loved candle-making. Candle making was so important. Her papa had picked a groom out for her, and she was going to be married! So, she needed to bless him when she made the candles. This was essential. She’d make a perfect candle – shaped just so. Just right for a new husband’s blessing. She needed God to bless this marriage. She was scared and she wanted to put all that nervousness into her candle, lock it in tight. She wanted to build connection to the family she was leaving too – the candles would do that.
If only her family wasn’t so difficult! Why did her niece have to jump around so? And her mama was straightening out the table cloth. Clearly, the elderly people couldn’t help their sighing and complaining and muttering – but she wished they could. She wanted to focus in on the candle-making that she loved. No one else cared about the actual candle-making.
Toyva went back to picturing her perfect candle and hopefully, her perfect bridegroom. She giggled softly, only to be met by her mother’s disapproving glare. “Don’t you care about the candle-making, Toyva?” her mother said. “Stop giggling and talking.” Toyva sighed. Her mother didn’t understand anything about her or about the candle-making.
Toyva looked at the table, proudly. Her candle-making table was ready, and she was pleased. She always loved candle-making. She hosted it for her whole family – her sister, her nieces and cousins, her aunt, her mother…They all came. It was a big responsibility – making sure the Shul had enough candles, making sure the other people made theirs nicely, and putting her worries, her hopes and her dreams into the one she was making. Her big strapping boy, working hard in Heder, her husband who was a good man, her little girl – such a jumpy scatterbrain! The two babies…two! God bless them, she hadn’t slept in months. And a candle for the little one that never was, the one that she had laid under a shroud before the Rabbis even had a chance to name him. She desperately needed this time to talk to God and get the strength and comfort she needed.
She supervised the table – she had better get everyone settled. “Quiet” she hissed at her nieces and the other young girls. What was it with that age? Always about husbands. What was to giggle about? They get picked for you, you lived with them and that was that. She put both hands on her daughter’s shoulders. “Calm down, Rebecca, love, it’s almost candle-making time” she warned. Maybe next year, she should leave the child with her father? She got her mother and her old aunt cups of tea, and brought another one for her sister. Poor thing, she was getting older, and Toyva could see her back was hurting her – she just wished, a bit, she didn’t have to know. It would be her turn to complain soon, she realized. Well, all of them would go into candles. All of her women and the way she knew them…
“Don’t fuss so, Toyva” her sister fretted at her as she took the tea with a weary thank you. “Try to focus on the candle-making.” Toyva sighed. She wondered why her family couldn’t understand her or the candle-making just a little bit more.
Toyva always loved candle-making. She needed it this year. Her knees hurt and hurt and hurt, and she hated it. She had to walk slower and with more care – and she couldn’t host things any more. Good thing the babies were almost married. She just needed to sit, to be with the wax, to let her hands still create, still, like God’s hands, make the shapes and images and colours come together. All this change, these days! She liked that they pressed on pretty colours of different beeswax lumps, and it was a good idea, really, but she missed the simple white of her beloved candles. Eh, it was still candle-making – still time to talk to God, and ask for just a little more time, a little more strength. She still had a lot to do!
She looked around. Yes, everyone was there. They held it at her niece’s now, and invited a whole lot of friends, but her sister still sat in a corner with the coverlet spread over her knees. Poor mama – she had passed away and was only there in the cemetery and in the candles now. There was her daughter worrying about the baby, and the young girls (some friends’ daughters or others) worrying about their boyfriends. Boyfriends! What was wrong with having a husband picked out for you? It worked for her – didn’t it? The little ones were jumpy and excited. She loved these women. She was glad of candle-making to bring them together. If only they were a little less noisy…the noise gave her headaches.
“Oy, my head!” she muttered, only to see the accusing glares of some of the others. “Auntie thinks more about her head than the candle-making” she overheard. Toyva sighed. They had no idea about anything, these young people. Her, the candle-making, life, anything…
Toyva always loved candle-making. Her hands shook too much to do it any longer, even with the simple sheets of sweet-smelling bees-wax that the children were using. Today, she just sat, with a candle on her lap – it was an old candle, that had lain in a memory chest for many years. She had added wax to fill in the cracks, a while ago when she still could, and now, it lay in her lap as a memory. She dozed a little as she watched the others move around the table. She knew every one of them – their hopes and joys, their worries about their boyfriends or their husbands, their school or their children, their backs and their hair-cuts. She breathed in the scent of the wax and sent blessings to her family for every candle she saw made. She blessed the men, too – the ones who weren’t there because they were playing with the babies, and the ones who weren’t there because age and life had taken them from her. She cried a little over her son, dead from the new cancer that took what the war hadn’t gotten. She cried about all of them, living and dead, memory after memory, cried and smiled, and dozed, watching the busy girls turn wax into candles with God’s power in their hands. Oh, she missed having hands that held God’s power!
But why was Surale crying? Her little one mustn’t cry, mustn’t weep! She wouldn’t tell this to anyone, but Surale was one of her favourites – so full of energy and strength and bounce and joy. She was a pleasure to watch. She called Surale over to talk to her, to hold her and comfort her until the tears stopped. “Mama doesn’t understand about candle-making!” Surale wailed. “I just wanted the light blue wax – I needed it to make the perfect candle.”
“Shhh, shhh, my little one,” whispered Toyva, holding Surale until the tears stopped and the sobs were quiet. “Shhh…” Toyva pressed an old, yellowed candle into Surale’s hands, and ignoring the glares from the women making candles, she whispered, “let me tell you about this candle.”