It’s the eighth night of Hannukah and I have been thinking about what I learned this chag. I want to live my Judaism in such a way that the holidays are not just a nice ritual of going through the motions but that I am changed. I had heard lots of different Torahs that effected me but I wanted something more I wanted a shift, I wanted an experience.
One of the things about the menorah that I find a little bit weird is that it has nine candelabras. On the eighth night of Hannukah there are nine lights. The ninth light, what is known as the ‘shames’ or the ‘guardian flame’, is not actually considered part of the menorah. It’s there because according to Jewish law, a person is not supposed to receive any sort of personal benefit from the light of the menorah. This law is so important, a ninth light is put on the menorah so just in case a person does receive benefit, it can be said to have come from the ninth light.
Now my first reaction to this is that is appears to be a bunch of intellectual gymnastics and semantics because how can a person really say they aren’t benefiting in someway and how can they say its only from the ninth light, it’s like an intellectual fiction. At the same time one of the things I have learned about Judaism is there are multiple layers to every aspect of life including Jewish law and that most likely there is more going on than meets the eye.
So let me jump to high school because it ties in to how I got my fix. When I walked around in high school I saw that most of the time almost always, people did not actually talk to me, they talked at me. I also got the message over and over that who I am was ‘what I looked like’, and ‘my grades’. If you were good looking and got good grades then you were a great person. If you got good grades but weren’t so good looking, OR if you were good looking but your grades weren’t so good, then you were OK. But, if you weren’t good looking and you didn’t get good grades, that’s it, you were just a shmendrik. And that was me, and, at the same time that was not me at all. Because I knew that who I was, was not what I looked like and who I was, was not my grades I got. I walked around feeling trapped by this superficial reality and I didn’t know how to talk about it because everyone seemed ‘in’ it.
Now, I can say that what was going on was objectification, that who I was was being reduced to an object, that my humanity, my individuality was being depersonalized into an external standard of worth. I was a product on the societal assembly line.
I heard a great line from an article about men’s psychology that just as women are objectified into their form, that who they are is their bodies, men too experience an objectification process. That women are objectified into sex objects and men are objectified into success objects.
Back in the day, Greek/Hellenistic worshipers carved stone images of beautiful human beings can called those statues gods. While Judaism taught that God could not be made into a graven image. If you read Homer’s epic poem the Iliad which is a foundational text of Hellenistic culture, the Greek warriors Hector and Achilles constantly talk about winning honor and glory in battle. In modern terms we could say the were going to crush their competition and be #1. The glory is having the equivalent of a billboard up in Times Square and to be famous.
My experience of mainstream Western culture is one in which if I am not famous then I am anonymous and if I am not a VIP then I don’t really count or matter, but once again, who I am doesn’t come from outside of me, what about that value? What about being loved for who I am?
One of the ways people deal with this is by developing defense mechanisms, sarcasm, cynicism, aggressiveness, defensiveness, obedience, rebelliousness, following they party line, looking good but in some way disowning our true selves. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that when we start putting on the psychological armor of a defense mechanism it is like wearing a mask, it is a layer of concealment. Then sometimes we wear the mask for so long we forget that we are wearing a mask, and then we live a state of what Rebbe Nachman calls the concealment within the concealment, and we forget who we are and we forget that we forgot ourselves.
This is where the menorah comes and the ninth light comes in.
When I forget who I am and start looking outside for my happiness, I try to find it in consuming stuff. When I get this computer I will be happy, when I get a pint of Ben and Jerry’s I’ll be happy but I never really end up happy and inside I feel empty. Then at some point I see I am not going to get my fix physically and I turn to the spiritual page in which I being to search for meaningful ‘experiences’ some kind of high or bliss or yaaaaaaa. But in the end I just end up a consumer once again. Looking at the world through eyes that weigh everything, on my agenda to get my fix.
And that brings me back to the menorah and the halacha of the extra candle to make sure we don’t receive benefit from the lights of the menorah. Whats the extra candle all about? It’s about the awareness of dropping my agenda to get something. If you feel the need to get something get it from this candle, but these eight lights here, they are not here to fill some sort of hole they are here to be seen. To help you remember that you are a human being and not a human doing.
The Hebrew word for glory is hod, which can also be poetically translated as inner radiance. Our value as human beings is inherent for we are made in God’s image. We are not bodies with souls we are souls with bodies. Not making a graven image of God is about knowing that Love cannot be confined to a box (or a book for that matter but that’s another story).
So tonight when I was looking at the menorah, I knew that it was considered meritorious to meditate on the lights and so I was sitting staring at them, but I was also hoping something would happen, and I was so busy checking to see if something would happen I wasn’t really appreciating the lights. I was in agenda mode. In my mind I knew that I wasn’t supposed to personally benefit from the lights, that extra light was there to remind me of that. And slowly, I began to let go of trying to have an experience and I was just looking at the lights. And I looked at the lights of the menorah and I wasn’t trying to benefit from them and I saw that I also didn’t have to try to be anything myself either, and suddenly I was ‘being’ with the candles, and we were one.
According to Judaism the number eight is associated with transcending the limitations of form. Tonight is the eighth night of Hannukah. What I lived and learned tonight was that the reason we light the menorah, is to celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple by the Maccabees after it had been desecrated by the ancient Hellenistic Greeks. Spiritually, this is remembering that who I am is not limited, that I don’t ‘have-to’ pose like a stone statue so I could be worshiped from the outside. That I can re-dedicate my inner temple to the Infinite One. That I can remove that idol from inside of me. And that the light from that tiny jug of pure oil, that soul spark of the Divine, that light, that is free, that can’t be bound or objectified, that is beyond, is who I am being, and becoming. That what I am here to do is shine.
May Hashem bless us to shine like the miracle of the light!