December 23, 2022
On Wednesday night, on the fourth night of Hanukkah, the balance of light and not-yet-light shifted, as we reached the halfway point of the holiday. So, too, the balance of day and night shifted with the winter solstice on Wednesday night. What an amazing alignment, as the light grows, inviting us to reflect upon light and dark in the natural world, in history, in the life of an individual, a community, or a people or nation.
I have spent a couple of nights this week just watching the candles burn, just being with them and experiencing the light as we are commanded to do. It is a rare thing for me, and I imagine for many of you, to take the time to just sit and experience something beautiful for a while, and this was truly a gift.
Jews throughout history have seen in the Hanukkah flames a symbol for deep theological questions and truths. In a mystical teaching, we learn that the light of the Hanukkah candles is a manifestation of the original, primordial light of creation. According to a Midrash (Bereshit Rabba 11:2) the initial light of Creation was so powerful that it enabled a person “To see from one end of the universe to the other.” Rabbi Ami Silver writes: “…[T]he rabbis teach this original light only lasted a short time in this world. Upon seeing the human potential for wickedness and cruelty, God decided to conceal this powerful light, preserving it for the righteous at some future time. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what the rabbis intended with this teaching, but we might infer that this light provided a clarity in perceiving the universe…Kabbalistic [mystical] and Chassidic writings identify Chanukah as a time in which this Hidden Light takes center stage. During “the festival of lights”, we are given special access to this Hidden Light, and the candles that we light during this time of year represent a way of making contact with the original light of Creation.”
On Hanukkah, we are invited to access the original, sustaining light of creation, which is there all along, but hidden from sight. We must take the action of lighting the candles, but once we do that, we need do nothing but experience them in order to connect with something profound and transcendent. Simply experiencing the light, and allowing others to experience it through “pirsum ha’nes” (publicizing the miracle — by placing our lit menorah in a window, or these days perhaps sharing photos of it with family, friends or posting it on social media!) is the mitzvah. To quote the great young poet Amanda Gorman: “For there is always light if only we are brave enough to see it – if only we are brave enough to be it.” Hanukkah, also based in a story of bravery, resistance and resilience against all odds, urges us to be brave enough to bring forth the hidden light, for ourselves and for others. Sometimes that bravery means simply sitting still long enough to look at the light and to experience its growth.
As the light grows, in our menorahs/hannukiyot and in the natural world here in the Northern Hemisphere, may our eyes and hearts grow more open to receive it and to share it.
Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman
Photo of the fourth night of Hanukkah, by Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman