Monday, November 29, 2021

Seeing Lessons: A Chanukah Contemplation


Seeing Lessons

We have all heard of music lessons and driving lessons. But seeing lessons? Seeing is something that a healthy person is born with the capacity to do automatically, why would one need lessons? 

It is just that - learning to see- that one of the primary observances of Chanukah asks us to do. In the Neirot Halalu –the piece of liturgy said immediately after the lighting of the Chanukah lights we say “And we have no right to make practical use of them (the lights), they are only to be looked at” 

This is actually quite curious, in as much as the other types of lights we are asked to kindle as a Judaic precept- The Shabbat and Holiday lights are specifically designed to be used for illumination. With Chanukah, we are asked to do nothing with the lights except to look at them.  

Every Jewish holiday carries a lesson that has the capacity –if absorbed- to enhance our lives throughout the entire year. A key component of Chanukah is to use the lights of the Chanukiah as a tool for teaching us to see in a  new way. 

If we look at a Chanukah lamp or candle, we will see that it has three mandatory components (an electric light or a burning pool of flammable liquid do not at all fulfill the obligation of performing the precept of the Chanukah lights): 

  • A wick
  • Fuel, e.g. oil or wax
  • The flame carried by the wick and fed by the oil.

To have a clear lasting flame all three components are necessary. A wick ignited is soon extinguished in a powerful but uncontrolled and smoky blaze to oblivion. Oil or wax without a wick will not burn in an illuminating manner and is very hard to ignite, as it is a cold and inert substance under normal conditions. Without the flame, there is no chance of light. 

During the entire historical period leading up to the events commemorated in Chanukah. The great challenge of the Hellenists to the Jews committed to their beliefs was: Why do you insist on proclaiming the supreme purpose of doing Mitzvot (precepts) with certain objects and certain places in certain times?  Symbolism is fine, but do you really think that there is intrinsic value in these practices? Can you not have great spiritual experiences without all these physical details?  Philosophize, meditate, but why the Tefillin (phylacteries)?  Why the Shabbat?  Why the Brit?  Be in a spiritual mode or be in a  physical  mode but who are you kidding by straddling the fence and pretending that cold, inert physical activity has intrinsic spiritual value?

The Judaic response is that the soul and body are indeed dichotomous and struggle with each other. The body desires the transient and tangible, the soul desires the eternal and ethereal. When the upwardly striving flame of the soul meets the inert coldness of the wick of the body they struggle and smoke. Either the body wins and the flame gutters out, or the soul wins and consumes the body, leaving only formless soot behind. The Western Traditions of asceticism and hedonism are two sides of this same Hellenic coin. In the dichotomous model, one side can only assert itself at the expense of the other.  

Judaism offers another model –the lamp. The flame does not consume the wick; it is the source of a clear and lasting light. The oil mediates between the wick and the flame slowly being consumed whilst the flame and wick maintain their integrity at peace with each other.  The oil is the Mitzvot -the precepts of Judaism. These are the concrete objects and experiences within which G-d asks us to find Him. The physical also flows from G-d’s essence. The challenge of the physical is finding the G-dliness in it, as the physical by its nature conceals the life force constantly giving it existence. This is in contrast to the spiritual which does reveal the creative energy within -that is, indeed the very definition of spirituality.  

However when we surrender ourselves to G-d and say, “show us where you are in the physical world” we are guided to the Mitzvot –the physical actions G-d creates as doorways to the Infinite within our finite world. 

When our body (the wick) is immersed in this “oil” and the flame of the soul is applied to our body's action expresses the G-dly and the body is illuminated and at peace with the light of the soul. We see that there is no Dichotomy in life, only possible harmonies. Since “Hashem your G-d is Truth”, Truth is that which is always the same under all circumstances. If G-d is less present or available in the physical realm then that is not Truth. How is G-d available in the physical? By the practice of the Mitzvot which all involve the physical in some way.

These are the seeing lessons the Chanukah lights teach us. Never see the physical as a contradiction to the G-dly but as a necessary ingredient to an illumined and just world. G-d is only real to us when present everywhere under all circumstances. We learn to never see the physical as the enemy or the spiritual as impossible to attain. See them as the ingredients of a lamp that just need to be drawn together in harmony  to shine. 

Truly see the lights of Chanukah, and nothing will ever look the same