It’s the FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS, a time of joy and celebration and the Maharal from Prague begins his Chanukkah book, Ner Mitzva (either “The Mitzva Candle” or, as I prefer, “Mitzvah = Candle”) by relating a nightmarish prophecy from Daniel. It’s night and one after another, four horrible monsters emerge from the sea, each more frightening than the last, with the fourth presenting an order-of-magnitude increase in terror. He goes on to relate each beast to one of the wicked kingdoms who have conquered and oppressed Israel. Perhaps this will become a Festival of Lights, but it certainly is no light festival.
Before proceeding farther, I want to emphasize that I will use the term Israel not in the tribal sense of The Jewish People but in a more universal and spiritual sense as indicating a state of mind, a level of development, enlightenment and awareness. Certainly over most of our history Jewish survival has depended upon, among other things, a very strong tribal identity. However, living in the contemporary miracle of a time and place where a great many people are able to and choose to explore their own spiritual potentials and thus try to share in the great work of tikkun olam, completing the world, we can look around and both learn from and share with other great human spiritual paths as well as honor and be honored by them.
Before painting too rosy a picture of western culture in the beginning of the twenty-first century, we do have to keep in mind that we’ve just finished the most horrific and dangerous century in human history. Two world wars, The Holocaust, too many genocides to number, atomic weapons and the foundation of the greatest environmental and ecological disaster the planet has ever known brings us back to reality pretty quickly.
As we must create a bridge from the dark despair into the light of compassion and freedom, Chanukkah provides us a ritual as well as a world of insights. Perhaps we should follow the Maharal‘s clue as our first step. The four beasts/evil kingdoms are Babylon, representing spiritual arrogance (remember that written culture and many religions (including Judaism!) seem to have begun on the Babylonian plain), Persia, representing excessive physical sensuality (the Esther story takes place almost entirely in the context of feasts and parties!), Greece, representing intellectual arrogance (Greek culture is well-known for it’s foundations of science, philosophy and aesthetics) and Rome, the fourth and continuing exile, the most terrible fourth beast, the succeeding and transcending heir to the earlier three. Chanukkah itself is the tale of our liberation from Greece and, as such, the blueprint of our future redemption.
Remember the kaballistic principle of “as below, also above” and it’s corollary, “as without, also within”. When we work to free ourselves internally, we contribute to the greater liberation. When we light a candle here in our homes, we light a candle in the world of the spirit (which is equivalent to lighting a candle, casting light, within). When we talk of our national oppression by Babylon, by Persia, by Greece or by Rome, we talk about our inner obstacles in the realms of spirit, body, intellect and integration. When we speak of purifying the Sanctuary, we speak of cleaning out the distracting, exhausting fears and complacencies that prevent us from identifying, let alone honoring our sanctuary within.
There are a number of avenues available within ourselves, some more inviting than others not only to different people but to the same person at different moments. The internal structure begins to hint at a number of these. When the Maharal specifies four kingdoms, we’re invited to consider other fours within our tradition. The first association that comes to my mind is the Four Matriarchs, Sara, Rachel, Bebecca and Leah. This leads us to ponder feminine energy in general as well as the specific archetypes represented by these women. A clue here is the oft-repeated process for the ultimate Redemption, often called the Messianic Age as well as Olam HaBa, the World That Comes (usually mis-translated as the World To Come), which is the rising of the long-surpressed Feminine Energy, Malchut, to equalize with the long-dominant masculine forces. The Holy Mothers also represent individual Sephirot within the Tree of Life system.
Another clear association is the concept of the Four Worlds, Atzilut, Beriya, Yetzira and Asiya (Emanation, Creation, Forming and Doing). There are also the four levels of interpreting the Torah, Peshat, Remez, Drash and Sod (simple meaning,hint, ethical imperative and secret (mystical)), the famous Pardes which was visited by four masters, one of whom died, one lost his mind, one became so disillusioned as to leave the faith and only one, Rabbi Akiva, “came in peace and left in peace“.
We also consider the Holy Name of Four Letters, the unpronounced Tetragramaton, each of whose letter points to a world, a level of understanding, a Holy mother and together point to a breathing technique used in meditation as hinted at by the Four Remembrances we’re supposed to incorporate into our daily experience. The Yod, a small point, represents our emptying ourselves, emptying our breath so we’re able to receive. It’s related to the Exodus from Egypt, a redemption for which no input from us was required. The first Heh, like the final one, among other things, represents a hand since it’s numerical value is five. This is considered the upper hand (an interesting note is that the word for “hand” is “yad“, related to the first letter!), the hand which brings energy from above to below, from the Divine to the earthly. It’s related to the memory of received the Torah, the Jewish paradigm of Divine Energy, at Sinai. We breathe in with this letter. Vav is the third letter and it represents the spine. We bring our breath, our received energy, down our spine and throught our body, cleansing, purifying, energizing. This is realted to remembering Amalek, of all things. Amalek, the irrational enemy who attacks for no reason. Remembering that whenever “war” is brought up in Torah, written as well as oral, it speaks, just a little below the surface, of the war with our own basest natures. We allow the oxygen to flow through our bodies. The final Heh, again a hand, represents our action and our speech, how they no operate in a purer, more compassionate way. We remember the misuse of verbal action, the lashan hara, slander of Moshe by his own sister, Miriam.
The great Hasidic master, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, in his foundational text, Kedushat Levi, instructs us to relate all of this to another “four”, again a four-lettered name of God but one which we can pronounce. In fact, the only time that God is directly asked his name he gives this answer, Eheye asher Eheye, I timelessly am what I timeless am (or I evolve to what I evolve or…….). In Hebrew, these are the letters Alef Heh Yod Heh. Breaking these letters down into their components, we generate the Holy Seventy-two Letter Divine Name. The matrix of meanings and powers of this name are beyond the scope of this article (remember, we’re still talking about Chanukkah and will return directly to it soon!), infinitely beyond my own understanding. In any event, a mantra meditation suggests itself with this name, Silence, Eh, Ehey, Eheye.
At this point you might ask why I’m talking about meditation when the topic is supposed to be Chanukkah! In the great Jewish tradition of answering a question with a question, I’d ask what are we supposed to do after lighting the candles? Give the presents? Well, that can wait for a few minutes (and by the way, although we don’t need to make Chanukkah the “Jewish Christmas” (and most Christians don’t seem very pleased with the gross commercialization of their holy day), there is a very strong value in presents–little feels as good or helps us grow as giving!).
No, we’re told that we can’t use the flames for anything “useful” and, in fact, should merely look at them. In other words, MEDITATE! When the halacha says that women aren’t to work while the candles are burning, the implication is that no one works (not, as might well be a good idea either before or after the candles, that the husband and children prepare the meal…..)
So, lighting the “candles within”, we meditate and let our souls rise. One meditation I enjoy is to begin with total darkness. After a bit, I visualize the first lit candle, the tremendous revolution of just a single light. And the next night, the next candle arrives and even just two candles within all the darkness, the light has literally just doubled. And then I visualize it increasing, step by step, until my “inner sanctuary” is filled with light. And then I add the eighth candle, the number which (and we’ll cover this in a moment) represents overflowing and transcending the material Creation and I feel the light pour out of me and flow to join the light pouring out of everyone else, joining to form a greater light which, eventually, can illuminate the world!
Another meditation is to incorporate associations with each of the numbers, one through eight, including, as it were, once again, every night of Chanukkah within each. You might remember, jumping across the year for a moment, the Passover seder where we sing many songs at the end. One very important reason, indeed, for these songs is to keep the children interested so they are included in the entire ritual on that important night. But they also give us keys to other important information. The song Ehad Mi Yodaya, “Who Knows One”, gives us a basic key to Jewish numerology. One is God, Two the Two Tablets of the Ten Commandments (the first physical manifestation of the Infinite into our limited world), Three, the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel, representing also the first three of the lower seven Sephirot (Chesed-Loving-Kindness/Gevura-Strength/Tiferet-Balance, Beauty), Four, the Matriarchs (Sara, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, also representing the next four Sephirot,Netzach-Victory/Hod-Splendor/Yesod-Foundation/Malchut-Majesty (yes, “Kingship” is considered Feminine!)), Five, the Five Books of the Law (the Written and thus definite Torah), Six, the Six orders of the Mishna (in other words, the infinite, eternally unfolding and evolving as we participate in the present Divine Energy), Seven, the days of the week (in other words, the physical, created world) and Eight, the day of a baby Jewish boy’s Brit Mila, that which makes him a Jew (and remember what we said earlier, we’re not using the concept of “Jew” as a tribal one but rather as shorthand for a transcendent level of enlightenment/compassion/growth which is available to all humans). Thus we can count within ourselves each progressing stage of Chanukkah while we increase the light we create within and without.
The Kedushat Levi also emphasizes that the miracle of Chanukkah flowed through the merit of Jacob. This is a very important hint since Jacob/Israel leads us to the concept of two names, as the Kedushat Levi points out, one for this world and one for Olam Haba (see above). As this led us earlier to explore the “candle below and the candle above” in terms of inner imaging, we can also try to visualize the “upper light” and realize that each candle we light is, in truth, two. Thus the total number of lights for the holiday is seventy-two mentioned above, linking us through a new path to the Holy Name of Seventy-Two. Many people chant/meditate the “Ana B’Koach“, attributed to Rabbi Nehunia ben Ha-Kana, the talmudic sage and mystic who also, we’re told, wrote the early Kaballistic text, The Bahir, right after lighting because it also outlines this Holy Name. When we add sixteen to this (the eight shamashot (extra candle we use to light the others and which we are allowed to use) above and below), we generate the Hebrew word, pach which refers to the miraculous cruse of oil which, in some interpretations, is exactly what Jacob recrossed the river to retrieve, thus spending the night alone, wrestling with the angel and receiving his “upper” name, Yisrael, weaving yet another loop in the net.
As we have all these kernels around which, hopefully, new and unique insights can coalesce, it’s worth wondering what, if anything, we hope to achieve with these rituals and meditations. My teacher and friend, Rabbi Ted Falcon, points out that we celebrate purifying the sanctuary which leads us to trying to clean out “the sanctuary within”. TheMaharal, as we mentioned earlier, suggests trying to clear away our crippling habits of mind, body and spirit, to start anew and free. The Kedushat Levi also reminds us that the personal redemptions of Yom Kippur occur in the Hebrew month of Tishrei. The following month, Heshvan, lacks holidays. And it’s only in the third month, Kislev, where perhaps the realization sinks in enough that we’re able to actually dedicate and rededicate ourselves to growth, illumination and enlightenment, also teaching us that, as for all things important, patience is a very necessary ingredient.
I hope this very limited Chanukkah offering helps enrich your holiday.