For about a month now, my older kid has been saying he can't wait for Hanukkah. And every time he says that, I ask him what he's most excited about - it's pretty consistently the latkes, and then other fun things follow like playing dreidel and eating gelt. This recurrent conversation has allowed me time to think about what I am most excited about Hanukkah. And the answer also has emerged with similar clarity.
My favorite thing about Hanukkah is sitting in front of the lit menorah, savoring the dancing lights and their reflections in the window. Last year I remember lighting candles around 5pm with my kids, and then more than once relighting the candles after my kids had gone to bed so I could actually sit and drink a cup of tea, and bask in their presence. As it turns out, it is in fact an ancient Jewish mystical practice to meditate on the Hanukkah candles.
This practice is actually rooted in the most unexpected of places, the laws of Hanukkah. In the Halakha we learn:
אין לנו רשות להשתמש בהן
We are not permitted to use them (O.H. 673: 1).
This stands in strong contrast to the candles of Shabbat, which are intentionally lit before Shabbat and are intended to serve as the functional light available on Shabbat.
So what is different about Hanukkah?
The Rambam teaches that we are not intended to "use" the light so that we can actually bear witness to it, so we can manifest the miracle. This is actually the reason why we have the shamash candle. This extra special candle is necessary because the Hanukkah lights themselves should not even be used for kindling other candles.
In this way, Hanukkah comes to remind us that miracles are possible if we take the time to witness what is. This requires taking time to be with and observe, without trying to change or put to "use." This is the invitation of both Shabbat on a weekly basis, and Hanukkah during this dark, cozy time of year. To pause, notice, and bask in the light of the world as it is. And from that place, invite the miraculous insights that arise from not trying to make it otherwise.
I offer you this practice for this coming Hanukkah festival. May it be filled with gratitude, presence, and the unexpected.
Happy Solstice, Shabbat Shalom, and Hag Urim Sameach!
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.