All year long I look forward to Hanukkah. There are few things as peaceful as sitting in the dark and watching the Hanukkah candles burn. As a parent, I find myself wanting to light once with my kids for the raucous joy. And then again, after they are asleep, in the quiet of the night.
In many circles, Shabbat Hanukkah is one of the holiest nights of the year. It comes always in the winter solstice season, and always with the story of Joseph and his dreams. The darkest time of year is accompanied by lighting the greatest number of lights.
In fact, this is the only Shabbat of the year in which we get to observe all three mitzvot related to lighting candles - Hanukkah, Shabbat, and Havdalah. While there are other candles we are invited to light, like a shiva or a yahrzeit candle, only these three are accompanied by a blessing and in this way ritually obligated. What can we learn from the differences in practice associated with each of them?
In the case of Shabbat, the obligation is quite practical. Since one is traditionally forbidden to make fire on Shabbat itself, the light is meant to dispel the darkness on Friday night that would otherwise make it difficult to eat, read, and rejoice in each other's company. For this reason, it is considered a kind of shalom bayit, intended to increase the peace in our homes. This light is both meant to be used and internally focused.
In the case of Hanukkah however, the opposite is true. The light exists for its own sake and is meant to be dispersed. One is in fact forbidden lehishtamesh bo - to make use of it. Which is to say, while you can delight in its burning, you cannot use it to produce light for the purpose of doing any other activity. I must resist the urge to cozy up with a book beside my little menorah and read by its light. A second difference is that originally our menorot were lit in public gathering places. And even as we have moved them into our own homes, we are instructed to place them in our windows, to publicize the light. In this way the light is very externally focused, meant to be spread but not used.
What strikes me this year, as we gather in our own homes, is the specific instruction to not see the Hanukkah candles as dispelling the darkness, but rather existing within it. There is a quality of knowing and a clarity of mind that comes when we allow ourselves to be with the darkness.
One midrash teaches,
"You find that a [sighted] person who finds themself in the dark can observe what is transpiring in a lighted place. However, any [sighted person] who finds themself in a lighted place is unable to observe what is happening in the dark. The Holy Blessed One, however, can see in the dark or in the light, as it is said: 'God knows what is in the darkness…' (Daniel 2:22)" (Tanhuma Tetsaveh 8).
Or in the words of Mary Oliver,
The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
In these darkening days, I invite you to find companionship in the light that exists in the dark. To remember, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches, that a little light can permeate a lot of darkness. And to allow for the unexpected gifts of this season.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This week my kids and I have been reading the book Older Than Dirt: A Wild but True History of Earth. It explores how the world came to be over the course of billions of years. The vastness of time, the evolution of all things that live, and their precariousness. Mass extinctions, minerals, fossils. It's all rather miraculous.
Did you know there was half a billion years where the earth was a giant river of volcanic lava?! And that the moon was formed when it crashed into earth. At first it was so close to our planet that days were only five hours long. And every year it moves one inch further away. Perhaps most astonishingly, modern humans are but the last two seconds on the 24-hour clock of the earth! The entire book is in many ways a macro-meditation on our smallness.
As it turns out, this week's parsha, Vayishlach, offers a micro-meditation on our smallness. Jacob returns to the Holy Land after twenty years of absence. His first act is to send messengers to his brother Esau, with hopes of reconciliation. Jacob sends his family ahead as he waits for Esau. Fearful for his life, he prays to God, in what Avivah Zornberg describes as "the first quoted prayer in the Torah" (Desire, 216).
Having invoked the God of his father Abraham, he begins:
קָטֹ֜נְתִּי מִכֹּ֤ל הַחֲסָדִים֙ וּמִכָּל־הָ֣אֱמֶ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתָ אֶת־עַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֣י בְמַקְלִ֗י עָבַ֙רְתִּי֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֣ן הַזֶּ֔ה וְעַתָּ֥ה הָיִ֖יתִי לִשְׁנֵ֥י מַחֲנֽוֹת׃
I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps (Genesis 32:11).
The word in Hebrew, ubiquitously translated as "unworthy" is actually the root קטן (k-t-n), meaning small or insignificant. It is the same word used to describe a minor and a younger sibling. It is a word of relative importance or size.
Ibn Ezra, known for his tendencies towards grammatical correctness, translates Jacob's prayer as "I am too small..." In this moment, Jacob assumes a posture of humility as he approaches the Holy One in prayer and praise for the goodness in his life.
So many times reading this book with my kids I thought to myself, "I am too small. I am unworthy of the kindness in my life." Given all of planetary existence, we are but specks of dust, sparks of light scattered about metabolizing light and water and trying to evolve. And in the process we are blessed in a myriad of ways with hesed and emet, kindness and truth, compassion and promises.
No doubt we are each responsible in some ways for the goodness that has come into our lives. But there is a deeper level on which we are unworthy recipients, humble servants of something larger and beyond ourselves.
In the words of the poet Naomi Shihab Nye:
"Since there is no place larger enough
To contain so much happiness (read: kindness, goodness, blessing)
You shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
Into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
For the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
And in that way, be known."
This Shabbat, may we be humbled by the clock of the earth and inspired by the prayers of our ancestor Jacob, to let the kindnesses in our lives flow into everything we touch. May we have humility and the courage to take no credit. And in that way be known.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.