This Hanukkah, Do this One Thing if You Do Nothing Else

18 Kislev

by Rabbi Josh

Depending on our perspective, we can choose to lift up a range of Hanukkah’s meanings. Among other messages, we might choose to talk about assimilation, religious freedom, holy chutzpah, light from darkness, or the possibility of miracles. Obviously, all are worthwhile. But sometimes, it also helps to just simplify things, to make them less heady and conceptual. So that is why, though it may sound strange, my suggestion during these eight days of Hanukkah is to just take some time—five minutes, ten minutes—to look at the lights of the menorah. Of course, first gather everyone together to say the blessings, but afterwards, when it’s quieter, while the lights are still burning, set aside whatever else you are doing and just place yourself in front of the lights and gaze at them.

To facilitate this, it really helps to have some candles that don’t burn out quickly, and that burn for close to an hour. For those who have oil burning menorahs, or can join us for this Sunday’s Together b’Teva (in Nature) gathering when we’ll be making our own oil burning menorahs out of wood or clay, you’ll get to see first hand this aspect of the miracle of oil. An oil burning menorah is a little messier but totally worth the extra effort. In an at-home experiment the other night, Daria and the boys found that one teaspoon  of olive oil burned for more than one and a half hours!

The softly flickering light of a candle has communicated spiritual depth in many religious traditions, and Judaism is no exception. Why are candles so spiritually evocative? Most obviously, because they are expressions of light, which is of course a primary metaphor of the Divine in many traditions. They are also quietly dynamic. Gazing at them is an inherently contemplative activity. If I sit down and gaze at a candle flame, letting go of whatever thoughts and preoccupations I may have, I usually find that my busy mind will settle down.

So that is my invitation. Don’t make it complicated; just sit down in front of the candles and allow their light to fill your gaze. As the traditional prayer “haNerot Halalu” (which is recited after lighting the candles) puts it: “for all eight days of Hanukkah, these lights are holy. We are not to use them [for light], [but] only to look at them.” I.e., the principle is that we are not to use the lights to light a room, but rather are only to enjoy them and use them as an aid to meditate on the wonder of the Sacred and to remember the presence of the miraculous in our lives and the lives of our ancestors, at this time and in this season (ba’yamim ha’hem ba’zman ha’zeh).

After a hot summer and a pretty warm fall, in the past couple weeks, it’s really become cold here in Sebastopol. The shift in the energy of season beckons us toward inwardness, towards quiet and contemplation, toward sitting by a warm fire. It’s setting us up pretty well to enter into Hanukkah. In my experience, just regularly making time during the busyness of Hanukkah for the simple practice of gazing at the menorah’s lights can add an entirely new layer of depth and meaning to this holiday. It becomes a way for the light of Hanukkah to nourish us far beyond its eight days.

So this Hanukkah season, beginning on Sunday evening, Dec. 6, on the 25th of the month of Kislev, if you do nothing else, do this one thing: take several minutes each night to quietly gaze at the lights on your Hanukkah menorah.

Hag urim same’akh/ Happy Festival of Lights,

Rabbi Josh