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
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.