Nearly 2300 years ago the kingdoms of Judea and Israel were ruled by the Seleucid Greeks under the oppressive lordship of Antiochus IV Epiphanies. Not content with the tribute paid by the Jews, Antiochus initiated a series of decrees designed to wean the Jewish people from their own traditions and assimilate them into Greek culture. Torah study, circumcision and the declaration of the new month which determined the celebration of festivals were abolished. A rebellion ensued led by the Hasmonean priestly clan and, in its military aspect, the charismatic son Judah the Maccabean. Severely outnumbered and with weaponry inferior to the Seleucids, the Jewish fighters nonetheless waged a relentless campaign against their overlords.
In retribution, in 165 BCE Antiochus ordered that the Second Temple be ransacked and desecrated. This setback, however, only increased the motivation of the Jews, who ultimately vanquished their former conquerors. When the Hasmoneans entered the ravaged Temple, they wanted to light the seven lights of the Menorah, the “eternal flame” in the Sanctuary. All of the oils, however, which had been harvested and processed in the required state of ritual purity, had been desecrated. Only one small vial of olive oil, enough to last for one day was discovered; this little vial miraculously lasted for eight days, which gave the Kohanim (priests) time to ritually purify themselves and prepare new oil for the eternal light of the Menorah.
Of all of the Jewish holidays, it can be safely said that the celebration Hanukkah is the most widespread. Even amongst the most secular Jews who would scoff at the fast on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the lighting of Hanukkah candles is ubiquitous. This is part due to the perception that the holiday celebrates a military victory, and it has thus, in many respects, become erroneously intertwined with the secular-Zionist ethos.
In point of fact, the rabbis who instigated the celebration of Hanukkah did so not to commemorate the military victory, though it could well be argued that this too was a miracle, but rather as a commemoration of the little vial of pure oil which remained lit for eight days. Considering that the Hasmonean conquest led to the corruption of both priesthood and monarchy, it seems there was some foresight in the rabbinic decision to ignore commemoration of the military victory in its own right
In the Bnei Yissachar the brilliant 18th century kabbalist R. Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov states that the light from the Hanukkah candles is in reality the אור גנוז (or ganuz), the concealed light from the first day of creation. (For those unfamiliar with this concept, in Genesis 1:4 it says, “And God saw the light, that it was good.” The commentator Rashi brings the Midrash which declares that God saw that this “light”, a spiritual illumination which preceded the physical solar light created on the fourth day, was unworthy to be utilised by the wicked; He therefore separated and concealed this light for the benefit of the righteous in the world to come.)
The Bnei Yissachar does not claim that the Hanukah light symbolizes this concealed light; he asserts that it IS the light that was concealed at the onset of creation. It would perhaps be more understandable if such a claim were made regarding the light of the Sabbath candles, as these commemorate the completion of creation. What does Hanukkah, however, a minor festival initiated by rabbinic decree that celebrates the endurance of a small vial of oil following the victory of the Hasmoneans, have to do with the supernal light that is ultimately destined to illuminate the souls of the righteous?
To understand this, it is first worthwhile to have a closer look at some of the customs and laws associated with Hanukkah and the lighting of its candles.
1. The Torah portion Vayeshev, devoted mainly to the story of Joseph’s descent to Egypt as a slave, precedes Hanukah. The commentator Rashi provides an odd Midrash in explanation of the opening verse: “And these are the chronicles of Jacob: Joseph, [at age seventeen, was a shepherd…]” The flax merchant arrived with his camels bearing loads of flax. The smith wonders, “How will all of this flax get through?” One clever lad replies: “One spark from your bellows will burn it all!” So too, Jacob saw the legions of Esau’s noble descendents (mentioned in the previous Torah portion) and thought, “Who will be able to vanquish all of these?” What is written thereafter? “And these are the chronicles of Jacob: Joseph…” and it is written: “And the house of Jacob will be like a fire; and the house of Joseph a flame; and the house of Esau like straw…” (Obadiah 18). Moreover, this strange theme of the flax merchant is repeated in the brief section on Hanukkah that is hidden away in the Talmudic tractate of Shabbat. There, a shopkeeper who places his Hanukiah in the public domain is exempt if it causes the flax to be set on fire.
2. There is a dispute between the sages Shammai and Hillel as to how many candles we should light. According to Shammai, on the first night one lights eight candles corresponding to the eight upcoming days during which the oil miraculously burned; on the second night, one lights seven, etc. According to Hillel, however, we begin with only one light on the first night and finish with eight on the last because of the dictum “one should increase matters of holiness.” The law is as described by Hillel.
3. Hanukkah is one of the only commandments involving פרסומי ניסא, i.e. publicizing the miracle, and, for that reason, we are commanded ideally to light in the “public domain” (literally, רשות הרבים, the “domain of the many”). In “times of danger”, however, ostensibly during periods of persecution, this requirement is wavered and one “may light on his table, and this is enough.”
4. Ideally, the candles should be placed within 3 to 10 handbreadths from the floor, a law that is unique to Hanukkah. According to kabbalah, the Shekhina is said to descend to the level of 10 handbreadths. Below that, one finds the realm of kelipat noga (“the shining husks”) that can only be illuminated through human action.
5. According to the Talmud, the time for lighting the Hanukkah candles terminates when “the last leg has left the marketplace”, and there are no more people to whom one can broadcast the miracle. This expression in Hebrew, however, (עד שתכלה רגל מן השוק) is ambiguous and could also be read as “until habitude has vanished from the marketplace.”
6. Although the Talmud tells us that the word Hanukkah is an acronym for (“they rested on the 25th [of Kislev]”), its simple meaning is “dedication” or “inauguration”, as the actual nature of the celebration was the reinauguration of the Second Temple following its desecration by the Greeks.
The miracle of Hanukkah is our ability to illuminate the mundane domains of the material world, where the Divine Presence on its own does not reach. What does this mean? We are all aware of those spiritual moments in our lives when everything appears as connected and illuminated. Can we, however, retain that light in our dealings with the “real world”? Can we still feel the “light” when confronting issues of our health, relationships, jobs, finances, etc? Does all that material “flax” passing through the marketplace make us wonder if spiritual illumination is only a delusion of comfort in the face of a predominantly material world?
The name “Joseph” means “he will increase…” In the story told of Joseph, his brothers first dump him in a pit before selling him as a slave to Egypt, which our sages considered the paradigmatic “pit” of materialism. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the very name of Egypt in Hebrew can be read as meitzarim, or “narrow borders”, a worldview lacking any acknowledgement of Spirit (one that still tends to dominate human thought today). From the pit of his prison, Joseph becomes the master of dreams and eventually the de facto ruler over all of Egypt. As a symbol of the sefirah Yesod, Joseph represents the element of human consciousness that bridges the gap between upper and lower worlds, and, in so doing, creates a seamless unity between them.
One of the more enigmatic Talmudic stories describing this apparent gap between the upper worlds (spiritual) and the lower (material) involves R. Shimon bar Yochai, for whom a death warrant was issued following his scathing criticism of the Roman authorities. Rabbi Shimon and his son Elazar escaped for their lives to a cave, where a miracle occurred and a spring of water and carob tree materialised to sustain the two. They stayed in that cave for twelve years, donning their clothing only for the times of prayer (so that they wouldn’t wear out), and, the remainder of the time, studying the mystical Torah buried up to their necks in sand. After twelve years, a disguised Elijah the Prophet appears at the mouth of the cave, incidentally informing Rabbi Shimon that the Caesar is dead and the writ for his execution thus suspended. Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar leave the cave, but they are distressed to find human beings engaged in the normal course of mundane events that make up life. “They have given up the eternal for the temporal life,” says Rabbi Shimon to his son, and everywhere the two of them cast a glance is burnt up in fire. A Heavenly voice cries out: “Have you left your cave to destroy My world? Go back to where you were!” The pair returns to their cave, where they remain for another year, i.e. the length of time sinners in purgatory would normally be punished. Again, a Heavenly voice instructs them to leave the cave. “My son,” says Rabbi Shimon, “it is enough for the world with you and me.” When they emerge a second time, every spot upon which Elazar casts a glance burns up in fire as it did before; when his father, however, casts a look at the same spot, he brings to it complete healing. It is Friday afternoon, and they then see an old man carrying two boughs of myrtle. “One is for the command to remember the Sabbath; the other is to observe it,” the elder explains. The scene suddenly switches to Rabbi Shimon’s son-in-law Pinhas ben Yair (in the Zohar their relationship is reversed) nursing the wounds to the skin of the former from the many years immersed in coarse sand. “Woe that I must see you in this state!” says Pinhas Ben Yair. “Woe had you not seen me in this state,” declares Rabbi Shimon. (Meaning to say, had Rabbi Shimon not suffered the harsh physical realities in the cave, he would not have experienced the spiritual realizations either.)
What is going on here? Why do they both burn up everything in sight on their first exit from the cave? And why, after returning to the cave upon the Divine command, does Elazar emerge as he does before, still burning up everything in sight? And what is his father doing to effect the healing that undoes his son’s arsonist stunts?
What occurred is that after twelve years of intense meditation and spiritual discipline, the mundane world resembles that huge supply of “flax” that is just waiting to be illuminated with the fire of spirituality. It is for this reason that Rabbi Shimon is startled to see that people seemingly forfeit eternal life for temporal concerns. This perception of the world, however, condemns it to duality: there is a part of my life that is light and spiritual, and another part of it that is dark and mundane. This duality can also lead to spiritual vanity, where we see it as our mission to enlighten and illuminate the benighted world. Conversely, when we misconstrue the fire of our personal desires with this spiritual fire, it is possible to get stuck in the gravitational pull of this lower world, all of the while convinced that one is forging a spiritual path.
When they leave the cave for the second time, Rabbi Elazar’s gaze still causes things to catch on fire. After all, according to kabbalah, the material world is in fact laden with hidden, fallen sparks of light that are meant to be redeemed through human effort. His father, however, has added on a quality that restores the balance to reality and healing to all of existence. That quality is known as השתוות הנפש, or equanimity. This is clear from Rabbi Shimon’s comments on his skin wounds to his son-in-law. Equanimity was the minimum requirement to join the circle of kabbalists in 16th century Safed. With equanimity, it becomes possible to perceive “the fire of Jacob” (spirit) and “the straw of Esau” (matter) and to see each as part of an integral process rather than as ontological didactics.
This is why we are meant to light in the lower ten handbreadths, which is not ordinarily illuminated by the Divine Presence. In so doing, we connect that shadowy nether region to the supernal world of light that emanates through creation. This is the concept of “adding on to holiness” described by Hillel. Through our perception, the profane itself becomes the holy. This gives us the possibility to enlighten “the domain of the many”, the illusion of substance and multiplicity that accompanies Esau’s flax.
How do we accomplish this in practical terms? We all stand metaphorically in the desecrated ruins of the Sanctuary, where the sacred flame has been extinguished. Is it possible to take these shadowy depths ravaged by the karmic past and transform them into light? According to the Hanukkah story, all that we require is a small vial of pure olive oil. Since olive oil is itself the mystical symbol of awareness, the vial of pure oil stamped with the signet ring of the High Priest represents the element of pure consciousness present in any or all moments of existence. That level of pure consciousness is directly proportional to the trait of equanimity we have cultivated. The greater our emotional or mental attachment, the more that pure consciousness is strewn with the impurities that imbue it with the reality of substance, the load of “flax” atop the camel that seems so impenetrable.
By surrendering our dualistic perceptions of reality and resting only in that pure awareness symbolizing the vial of pure oil, one transcends that seeming obstinacy of nature (symbolized by the number 7) and transforms the real world into one that manifests that which is above nature—the supernatural signified by the number 8 (the Infinity symbol on its base).
This is why the Talmud states that the Hanukah candle should be lit “until the last leg has left the marketplace.” As mentioned before, the word רגל can mean both “leg” and “habitude”. What the Talmud is saying is that we have to light that metaphorical candle until our usual way of seeing mundane reality is absolutely transformed. It must become for us a source of light rather than shadows.
In essence, the Hanukkah story describes each human being’s mystical mission, to illuminate his or her own personal darkness in the material realms, as well as the collective mission of humankind and the specific mission of Israel as a “light unto the nations.” The gematria of Israel in Hebrew is equivalent to the numerical value of the Hebrew words for “light” and “darkness”. This is because Israel is meant to be a mystical station to process seeming darkness into the reality of light.
Sometimes this process is fraught with difficulties and dangers. When we fail to eliminate the dualistic split and still perceive the “real world” as something outside ourselves, we run the risk of looking at “reality” with bitterness and contempt. Conversely, we can also fool ourselves, becoming victims of our instincts and passions in the guise of spiritual rectification.
That is why in “times of danger’ we light the Hanukiah on the table, and “that is enough”. The table symbolizes our eating habits and, in general, our physical desires and appetites. Only when these are first balanced in a state of equanimity, when we achieve oneness from within, do we have the capability of creating oneness in the external reality surrounding us. Then, we can “inaugurate” our perception of reality to one that remains perpetually new, and our world becomes a different place.
The 18th century rabbi and scholar Rabbi Meshullam Feibush of Zabrizce suggests that many people mistakenly assume that the “primordial light” concealed by the Divine is inaccessible until we reach the World to Come (or, more precisely translated, the World that Is Coming). He goes on to explain that the Hebrew word for Torah translates as “Guide” and its Aramaic equivalent, ohraiytah, as “revealing that what is hidden inside of it” (דאורי וגלי מאי דסתים ביה). What is in fact concealed in the Torah is that very primordial light! Moreover, one does not need to wait for an eschatological event to access that light. As soon as a righteous person seeks it there, then, in “the world that is coming”, that is, the immediate future, that light is revealed to him or her straight away.
From this, we can better understand how the simple action of lighting a candle manifests that primordial light of Goodness. Since, from a mystical viewpoint, the Torah is a guidebook to illuminating the shadowy realm of the husks through human effort, the light from the Hanukiah becomes more than a concrete symbol of the concealed light—it becomes its very manifestation. May the meditative light of Hanukkah help us all in our search to transform the “domain of the many” into the “domain of the One” and, rather than fleeing from Esau’s flax and the shadows of the “real world”, may we all be blessed to find therein that pure vial of oil that will light up the darkness forever!
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This blog is dedicated to the exploration of mystical wisdom and life experience. It seeks to penetrate beyond the shadows and surfaces of our physical reality to discover vistas of unfathomable depth, beauty and meaning. These mystical realms are closer than you might imagine, for they exist in every multifold aspect of the observed empiricial world, as they do within the consciousness of the observer. In the infinite silence and contracted light, within the ethereal mirage of every passing moment, the eternal search begins and ends...
Monday, 10 December 2007
Lightening Up the Shadows
Posted by Moshe Yehuda at 12:59 pm