For anything much more complex than, say, driving a nail into a board, direct action, surprisingly, is generally not very effective. In fact, even for a task this simple, unless you intend to push the nail-head as hard as you can with your thumb, which probably won’t even work (although it will definitely hurt), you’ll soon switch your efforts to making efficient use of a hammer, as well as the lever action you can generate with your arm. In other words, we quickly learn that the longer path is often the shorter one.
Although many of our Mitzvot, not-so-accurately translated as “commandments” (better seen as actions which bind us ever closer to our Neshama, our spiritual soul-root, to The Creator and to the Jewish people in general) have superficially observable effects, their real power takes place in realms and through modes we can only take on faith. That doesn’t mean “make-believe” but, rather, since we’re humans, and thus finite beings, our vision and understanding only goes so far. But our actions really can go far beyond our usual limitations.
Our Torah is much more than the bible, a mere book. One important way of viewing the Torah is as a manifestation of the Infinite into our finite world. It is an entity from another dimension, as it were. An equally enlightening view of the Torah which we glean from our mystical tradition is that it comprises the 613 mitzvot, commandments. These mitzvot divide into 248 positive ones, representing all the organs and limbs of a human body and 365 prohibitions, related to the nerves, veins, tendons and other internal connectors. The Mitzvot system is equivalent to a human, אדם, Adam, both as a microcosm, an individual person (עולם קטן, Olam Katan), and the macrocosm of the entire universe (אדם גדול, Adam Gadol).
When there is something we wish to repair or to reinforce in our world, whether it’s something concrete, such as the health of a loved one, or more general and abstract, such as moving the world closer to peace and balance, we have a number of not-necessarily mutually exclusive approaches we can take. We can and do take direct action, such as administering medicine and other care, engage in politics to promote certain goals, even go so far as to helping people build homes for themselves. There is another type of direct action which clearly coincides with mitzvot. A doctor has a Torah mandate to heal. Tzedaka, charity, is another set of explicit commandments.
But some actions, especially if undertaken with clear and positive intent, and even when they might not seem to have anything at all to do with the desired outcomes, have, potentially, exponentially greater power. This is because, as we’re taught, our actions, both in the realm of mitzvot, but all other actions as well, primarily work to energize forces in the infinite, holy and divine worlds. As we reconfigure these lights (even if we’re not able to directly observe them), stimulating some and restricting others, we indirectly contribute to the management of the divine energies which not only operate, but provide the existence of, our world. Our influence is greatly magnified by our choosing to work with the fundamental energies of the universe rather than to merely make cosmetic changes on the surface.
These ideas seem to too many of us as surprising, foolish, naïve or superstitious and that fact reflects a tragic reality of much of today’s Judaism. These actually well-known and described concepts are so seldom taught at all, let alone as central to our tradition. Even much of the orthodox world ignores them, hiding behind a false modesty that they’re “only for the big guys”. How can we turn our backs on this deep wisdom?
For one thing, they do, indeed, fly in the face of the pure empiricism which dominates our modern world. What surprises, though, is that even the very frum, charedi world rarely explores that part of our tradition, quarantining those who seek more than a superficial familiarity of the vocabulary. Although our talmudic tradition should train us to happily navigate a more complex methodology, it, too, often shirks that responsibility.
Which brings us to Channuka. The revolution against Greco-Syrian military domination was only the visible layer of a much deeper struggle. Much of our scientific knowledge and technical advances of the last centuries are directly based on empirical study. But not only our western culture is largely self-restricted to this view of reality, so, unfortunately, is much of the contemporary Jewish world. It’s not merely a matter of assimilation, although most of the liberal Jewish world tends to rely on “scientific” literary criticism, politically-correct “historical” studies and the like rather than on traditional sources as viewpoints. However, to a large degree the recent (last 150 years or so) fossilization of the orthodox halachic process also derives from seeing Talmud and Halacha as linear.
A unique contribution of Judaism, although it is ever-more-frequently either unknown or ignored, is that we are mandated to successfully navigate both the linear and the associate, the empirical and the intuitive. This derives from our Oral Torah, the ever-developing and unfolding of the infinite layers of meaning embedded in the finite Written Torah. Our tradition often equates the Torah with The Creator. The intent of this isn’t to scare us into blind obedience but to constantly remind us that just as God has infinite facets, so does the Torah. As I often emphasize, Judaism has no place for “one-size-fits-all” halacha or opinions!
Although we can and do derive practical ritual, ethical and legal decisions from the Talmud, in a way that’s just a secondary benefit of Torah study. The real purpose is to act as a “gymnasium” (substituting a Jewish worldview over the Greek one) for the soul/mind, a set of mental exercises to teach us how to thrive by straddling both worlds. We learn how to analyze situations through multiple simultaneous parameters–techniques that are only recently being developed on the frontiers of mathematics and other sciences as they, themselves, confront the need to transcend the empirical.
Chanukah is both an opportunity and a mandate to, once again, rededicate ourselves to breaking our limitations, to elevate “outside the box” thinking as at least co-equal with logical analysis.
After the Chanukia, the nine-armed candelabra, lighting of which is the totality of our mitzvah observance, the most familiar symbol of the holiday is the dreidel, a four-faced top with which we play a simple game. Our tradition is an intentional one, full of symbolism and lessons. When we play dreidel, our holding it by its stem from the top is not coincidental. Rather, it symbolizes that the miracle of Chanukah was one that was initiated from the top down. As opposed to its “sister” holiday, Purim, whose toy is the gragor (noise-maker) which we grasp from the bottom, and where we, in fact, initiated our miraculous salvation through fasting, mourning and other modes of active Tshuva (repentance), we didn’t collectively call upon God to save us. Rather, a small group of people, the Maccabees, were inspired from above to take up arms for the unlikely defeat of the Greco-Syrians who had overrun our country, occupied our holy Temple and who brutally attempted to force their world-view upon us.
With help from the Almighty we were able to recover our independence and our right to our own values and traditions. To mark this remarkable and highly unlikely military miracle, we were graced with an additional miracle of one day’s oil providing constant light a full eight days until new, purified oil was available. In fact, the holiday is often referred to as the Holiday of Lights.
We’re taught that the light from the pure and sanctified oil produced a light of such great clarity as was unseen in any other context. As we know, pure white light is, in fact, the product of all the various wavelengths of color. Like the Torah, although it can appear to be simple and linear, it is, in fact, infinitely complex.
We often tend to take comfort in the simple. Complexity all too often frightens rather than challenges us. It’s so easy to retreat to an easier way of seeing things. It also appeals to our narcissistic selves because it feeds the illusion that we can actually understand all there is. Each Chanukah can seem a great struggle to just sit quietly and gaze at the lights, to remind ourselves that no matter how much we might come to know, there will always be infinitely more that we never will. Our physical eyes are only enabled to perceive a tiny fraction of the light that our spiritual eyes tell us is really radiating from our narot, candles. The struggle for freedom from our self-imposed boundaries is one we need to periodically renew. All the frequencies of the light are truly there for us.
חג אורים שמח, Chag Orim Sameach.