A Kavannah of Hanukkah

by Student Rabbi Roberta Glick

There are 2 themes: gratitude and tsheuvah that I want to talk about today with regards to Hanukkah. Hopefully something old and something new for everyone.

We sometimes think of Hanukkah as a “minor” holiday, maybe celebrated to balance against another big holiday in December. And we know Hanukkah is about a war that the Jews won against the Greeks, against assimilation. We rededicated the temple, and the oil for the menorah was only enough for 1 day but lasted 8 days. A miracle! That’s what the rabbis want to stress: the miracle of the light; not the fight.

Hanukkah is not discussed in the Torah. Rather, it’s in the Talmud, our oral law (tractate Shabbat) in a discussion about animal sacrifices. In ancient times, animal sacrifices were numerous and a great variety of types were offered each day but decreasing in number each day. This led to a discussion by the two famous Rabbis in the Talmud and their schools: How to light the Hanukkah candles.

Beit Shammai (who was stricter) said: Just like Sukkot sacrifices, we start with many and go down in number each night, from 8 to one. Good reasoning but Beit Hillel (who was a bit more humble and inclusive, but by no means pluralistic,) said NO. We do it differently. We start with one candle and we INCREASE the number of candles lit each night. And thus we do it as per Beit Hillel. Because Hanukkah is about increasing Light in the world, we increase holiness in the world, not decrease.  מעלין בקודש, ואין מורידין

Hanukkah comes at the darkest time of the year. There are holidays in other faiths in December that also point to bringing light into a dark world. For example, the Indian holiday Diwali, the Christian holidays of solstice and advent, the African holiday of Kawanza, the Muslim holiday of Mawlid un Nabi (birthday of Muhammed).  For Jews, “the light of the Lord is my soul.” The prophet Isaiah says that our job as Jews is to be a “light unto nations”, to bring the moral and ethical teachings of teachings of Torah to the entire world. Light is holiness.  Light is G-d. Light is Torah. Light is soul.

Another place where the Talmud talks about Hanukkah is in reference to the type of candles or oil we use on Hanukkah versus Shabbat, and how they are used on these days. Shabbat is about separation, distinction. We stop the work we do all week and rest.  Heschl describes it as a cathedral in time, not space. It’s a taste of the time of our future redemption, when all is perfect, and nothing needs to be fixed or created. Special preparations are required for Shabbat. Some people go to the mikveh for ritual purification. And only special candles designated just for Shabbat can be used. Once you light them, no other work can be done, and the light of the candles can be used for reading or studying; utilitarian value. Prepared and special for Shabbat.

In contrast, any oil or candles can be used for the Hanukkah menorah; clean dirty, broken, whole, special or not, and not much preparation is necessary.  It’s a “come as you are” party. And once you light them, the mitzvah of Hanukkah is to gaze upon their beauty, their holiness, their light, and not use them for anything else. The Hasidic masters describe the candles as a metaphor for us, for our lives.  Whether we are broken, common, rich, pure, impure; and whether you are prepared or not ready to be holy, you can come and participate and be included in the mitzvah. All types of people, all types of candles and oil. We enter from the place where you are, and each of us may enter from a different place in our lives. But we can all make the leap, or step. We can all participate in bringing holiness into the world, and light into the darkness.

The Hasidic masters were concerned that it is not enough to just do the mitzvah and just follow the law mindlessly. Rather, they were concerned with our internal experience, our religious consciousness, and even the mystical experience: being aware that you are in the Divine Presence when we participate in a mitzvah.  We may say this is Kavanah, the intention, also mean “arrow or direction” we are aiming, and many of us call this mindfulness.  And just as we bring the light into the darkness of the physical world, the Hasidic masters, and in particular Sfat Emet, taught that as we gaze at the candle, we should deeply “look” for a long time, 5 or even 30 minutes, and see how the flame changes, and is constantly moving. Again, like our lives. Perhaps some of you were like me and liked to look at fireplace fires or campfires for a long time like this. The Hasidic masters teach that as we gaze at the candles we need to look “deeply.” It is important to “see” what is not visible to the eye, as well. We need to look deep inside ourselves, and shed light on our own dark spaces, our shortcomings, our resentments, our neediness, our excessive wanting or grasping for materialism, our turning away from the beggar or homeless or sick or elderly, our lashon hora or yetzer hara.  We can shed light on these internal dark spaces, and do t’shuvah. Sfat Emet says that within each of us is an inner point, and inner spark, and we can infuse this point into the entire soul of a person by being joyous through Hallel (praise) and Hodaah (thanksgiving), meriting to be included in the community of Israel.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov says that choshek, darkness, is forgetting; turning away. Light is “seeing”, remembering, memory, the secret, the hidden good, and bringing it forth. Only with the “heart” can one see what is right. Think about how we “see”, how we “look”, for this determines how we “relate” to one another. So as we shed light on our own dark internal spaces, in our lives, in our hearts we can try to bring more light into ourselves, more loving kindness, more generosity, more shalom, more joy, more gratitude into our own hearts, into our own consciousness, and as we open our hearts we can bring these attributes, the attributes of G-d, into the world: “be a light unto nations”.

A final sharing about Hanukkah from my Zohar class.  The Zohar is a beautiful mystical book holding deep wisdom, secrets and meanings to the Torah and everything else.  I see it as a poetic look at life and Torah. For me, poetry is like an impressionistic painting; you get a few evocative words and images, and you fill in the rest, creating an experience. What I learned from my wonderful Zohar teacher, Rachmiel Drizin, is that Hanukkah is really a holiday of gratitude and t’shuvah. On each of the 8 days we are supposed to recite the complete Hallel, songs of praise and thankfulness. And each of the 8 days of Hanukkah are associated with a particular Sefirot, from Kabbalah. These are representations of the attributes of G-d superimposed on man. We are a microcosm of G-d in that we are made in G-d’s image. These Sefirot, middot, attributes include wisdom, loving kindness, truth, balance, beauty, etc. On each day of Hanukkah, we are supposed to instill a sense of gratitude through recitation of Hallel and focus on one of the attributes of G-d, and try to emulate it that day, to practice it in your life, and repair the brokenness. Hanukkah is considered the last chance to get in your “high holiday” T’shuvah, to renew the vows you made on Yom Kippur, about improving your life this year: physically, intellectually, spiritually, with yourself and others, with Chesed and generosity and compassion.  It’s like the “new year resolutions” some of us make.

Here is a really nice conversation piece from Orot. The theme is “The lights we need”. On this Hanukkah, which types of light do we need? Which light do YOU want to bring into your family or the world. Finish this sentence: “Tonight we will consider the light of…”Courage, stillness, comfort, joy, growth”. In closing, may you be blessed with the light of Chesed and compassion in your lives. May you be blessed with eight days of internal light and repair, fixing chaos in your life, and illuminating the dark days of winter and increase light in the world.

Meditation: From the priestly blessing: May G-d shine Divine Light upon you and be loving to you: A Prayer of luminous light and Love to you. Think of a time when you were luminous or you were loved.

Shalom.

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