When I first started back on my journey to reclaim Judaism, I distinctly remember the first Hanukkah I lit candles. Not only was I bringing light into the literal darkness of night, I was also kindling the divine spark within myself. Each night I walked through a meditation I had created using the letters of the word Hanukkah, since there were eight letters and eight nights. I remember some of the words I had assigned to the nights: Holiness, Attentiveness, Night, Understand, Knowledge and Keep. I can’t remember the rest, but I do remember feeling the calm of the candlelight and the deepness of the meditation. I also remember that at some point, either I missed a night of lighting or I repeated one night twice because the days were officially over, and I still hadn’t lit all eight candles.
That has happened to me twice since I returned to Judaism. Yes, twice. Maybe three times. Oh, I don’t know. Now every time the festival approaches I worry that I’m going to do it again. I’m constantly rechecking the calendar so that I am certain I know which night we are on and so that I don’t miss one. I know it sounds like a mundane worry. Yet, in many ways Judaism works on turning the mundane into the holy. This was clearly a lesson on the ways in which the routine of life had too much control over me.
I remember the first year I got everything right. Not only was I proud of myself, I also felt more spiritually present. In a small way, this tiny victory of completing the candle lighting correctly, opened up a number of realizations within my Jewish practice. First, there was a way in which my intention to do something correctly had nothing to do with following the rules. I could still celebrate Hanukkah even if I inadvertently missed some nights. However, my effort was an important part of the spiritual process and practice. In addition, this time of the year usually coincides with the end of the semester as well as a bunch of “holiday” parties and get-togethers. In order to remember to not just light the candles, but also light the correct number on the correct day, I had to cultivate within myself a different state of mind, a mindfulness of the Presence in everything I do. If I could do that for eight consecutive days and nights, that meant I was embodying my spirituality in a more profound way.
At the same time, this practice of needing to be constantly mindful of the festival in order to observe it in its entirety also got me to think about what it is that I have been celebrating. Historically, the festival commemorates the miracle of one jar of oil lasting long enough to rededicate the temple after the Maccabees militarily won it back from the Greeks. In essence, we celebrate both a military victory and the re-institution of worshiping G-d through, among other things, animal sacrifice.
There is no way I will light candles for the festival at face value. All of the sudden, it dawned on me. Perhaps my inability to light the candles in the correct way and in the correct number has more to do with the basic meaning of the celebration and that’s why my practice is always a struggle. While contextually one can say the following: the military victory links humans as partners with G-d in order to bring back an ancient and recognizable form of worship they deemed necessary. While animal worship made sense then, I cannot condone it now. Likewise, I will not celebrate militarism.
What I think is missing from this reflection is what the temple represented more than anything else: the indwelling of the Holy One among us. The Shekinah would reside in the Holy of Holies. That’s what the Maccabees thought they were doing upon the rededication of the temple: bringing G-d’s presence literally back to a world that had snuffed it out. Bringing G-d back to the temple, for them, meant creating a better society. Without human action, that was impossible. Their military victory was only part of the action required. They also cleaned out and readied the temple for its rededication. They lit the oil with hope in their hearts knowing it was not enough but still trying their hardest.
For them, they literally believed they were welcoming G-d back to the indwelling place. For us now, the Holy One indwells more in this world the more we bring: hope into a hopeless situation; friendship into a lonely situation; love into a loveless situation; care into difficult situation; safety into a dangerous situation and so on and so on. We don’t need the temple to bring more of the divine essence into the world. Rather we need each other. These are ideas I can celebrate. They will be my reflection as I light all eight candles tonight.
Who knew that my difficulties with lighting Hanukkah candles over the years would lead me to a deeper understanding of what it is I am and am not honoring during this holiday. In some ways, the Hanukkah reflection I did the first year has come full circle: I Know and Understand what kind of Attentiveness and Holiness to Keep. Now if only I could remember the other words I had used the first time I lit my Hanukkiah.
May we continue to grow the divine sparks. Chag Sameach.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D. is feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Ecofeminist courses. She is an Associate of Merrimack College‘s Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations and spent many years there as an Adjunct Lecturer in the Religious and Theological Studies Department. In addition to teaching and research, Ivy spends considerable amounts of time learning Czech, painting, drawing, creating new kosher delicacies and playing with her dog, Mini, and cat, Gabbi.