This Hanukkah, Just Look at the Lights
Hanukkah, like many Jewish holidays, contains a range of themes—religious freedom, light from darkness, the possibility of miracles. Certainly, it makes sense to explore those themes in depth. But sometimes, it also helps to just simplify things, to make them less heady and conceptual. So that is why, though it may sound strange, my suggestion during these eight days of Hanukkah is just take some time—five minutes, ten minutes—to look at the lights of the menorah. Of course, first pull everyone together to say the blessings, but afterwards, while the lights are still burning, set aside whatever else you are doing and just place yourself in front of the lights and gaze at them.
To facilitate this, you may want to forgo the very cheap multi-color Hanukkah candles that burn out in less than thirty minutes, and purchase some longer ones that burn closer to an hour. Perhaps your shul gift shop has some, or you can purchase them online from www.judaism.com (which is based in Pittsburgh). Or you can really go all out and purchase an oil burning menorah, which is what the Maccabees had. It’s totally worth the extra effort.
The softly flickering light of a candle has communicated spiritual depth in many religious traditions, and Judaism is no exception. As the classic verse from Proverbs (20:27) puts it: “The candle of YHVH/Hashem is the human soul, searching out our inner recesses.” The Zohar (the greatest text of Kabbalah) contains a detailed meditation on the flame of a candle (see Zohar 1:50b-1:51a), which draws our attention to different spiritual meanings represented by the various colors of a candle flame.
Why are candles so spiritually evocative? Most obviously, because they are expressions of light (a primary metaphor of the Divine in many traditions). They are also quietly dynamic. Gazing at them is an inherently contemplative activity. If you sit down and gaze at a candle flame, letting go of whatever thoughts and preoccupations you may have, you’ll likely find that your mind will settle down. So that is the suggestion. Don’t make it complicated: just sit down in front of the candles and allow their light to fill your gaze. As the traditional prayer “Ha’nerot Halalu,” recited after lighting the candles puts it: “for all eight days of Hanukkah, these lights are holy. We are not to use them [for light], only to look at them.” I.e., the principle is that we are not to use the lights to light a room, only to enjoy them and use them as an aid to meditate on the amazingness of the Holy One and to remember the presence of the miraculous in our lives and the lives of our ancestors.
If you do want to add another layer of meaning to this practice, (perhaps for subsequent nights) you can use the candles as an aid to contemplate a fundamental principle in mystical Judaism, “Ein od mil’vado: There is nothing else besides the Holy One.” (Deuteronomy 4:35) As Rabbi DovBer Pinson teaches, “When we allow the light of the menorah to fill the entire screen of our vision and imagination, it helps us realize that Divine Light fills and permeates all of Creation. Just as there appear to be multiple lights on the menorah, there appear to be separate entities throughout our world. However, just as we light all the candles from a single flame, all phenomena in the world are sparks of a single fire, expressions of a single Source.” (from Eight Lights: 8 Meditations for Chanukah)
May we all be blessed to have eight days of Hanukkah filled with light—with the light of joy, the light of connection with our loved ones and the light of increased awareness of the Divine Presence.