by Rabbi David Seidenberg

Hanukkah (Chanukah) is about darkness as much as light. Rabbi David Seidenberg teaches about the necessary interaction of the two in a mystical celebration of the holiday:

The menorah teaches us about the unity of the light and the dark. Darkness is not opposition to light—it is what allows light to appear, to shine. More than this, it is the darkness which enables us to see the faint light of the candles, the light of redemption. At the same time, the candles are revealing the holiness that is inside darkness. Chanukah then is an invitation to embrace darkness and light together, and to see both as filled with God’s presence, as Psalm 18 says, Vayeshet choshekh sitro…Ki atah neri YHVH, yagiah chosh’khi “God makes darkness his secret place…For you will light my candle YHVH, my God will make my darkness glow.” (vv.12, 29)

The root of the word Chanukah means dedication and education, but the first two letters, which are the root of the root, also mean grace, chen. The light of the menorah represents grace in two ways: the unexpected miracle of the oil lasting eight days, and the normal miracle of the sun’s light returning as we pass through the darkest point of the year, the new moon close to solstice. The Chanukah candles always form a bridge crossing the darkest night of the year. (A menorah actually looks like a suspension bridge—or a pontoon bridge, depending on your menorah!)Menorah-like plant by Glauco Pentenero, Italy, Flickr

The miracle of light is pure gift and love, what is called in Kabbalah chesed chinam. In Kabbalah, the light we see in the candles of the menorah is one of the last visible echoes of the Or Eyn Sof, the infinite light from the beginning of creation. It takes the enveloping darkness to see clearly the drop of light that is freely given. We may believe that the light is something we deserve or have a right to. It takes a diminishing of ego to make us aware that the root of all things is grace.

Rather than the ladder of redemption, on which one can either go up or down, but not both at the same time, we may take in Rebbe Nachman’s picture of the world as a revolving wheel, symbolized not by victory or defeat, but by the spinning dreidl, which demonstrates the unity of all opposites. The utlimate grace is the realization of this unity, which according to Rebbe Nachman is the very purpose of the Temple itself.

On the Shabbat before Chanukah, the Torah reading ends with Joseph in the dungeon, forgotten. As a symbolic sun at winter solstice, Joseph spends that last week below the earth, submerged in the darkness that we confront at this time of year, only emerging to take his place on the throne of Egypt on the Shabbat of Chanukah. We can use this darkness in ourselves to search out what is hidden behind our faces and in our hearts. Understanding the darkness and searching for the hidden is a part of the work of Chanukah—finding that place of purity within the mess of one’s heart.

Descent for Joseph, for the sun, for each of us, is the actual seed of redemption itself—something every gardener knows. May we be blessed to find the redemptive seed in whatever darkness we face, and to allow it to intensify and sweeten our light.

Reposted with permission from NeoHasid.org

Featured image: “Menorah” by Gema Campos, via Flickr

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