During the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days, we cleansed away all that no longer served us so that we could come into the new year fresh, open, and renewed. Wrapped in burial shrouds, bodies empty of food; we enacted our own ritualized death in order to be reborn.
Now, these months later, we arrive at Chanukah, our holiday of rededication. Just as the Maccabees had to cleanse the Temple of idols and rededicate it to its original purpose, so too can we use the holiday of Chanukah to rededicate ourselves to our highest and holiest intentions. All renewals require the dying away of what once was in order to make space for the birth of what could be. On Chanukah, what are our spiritual practices for enacting this?
The lighting of Chanukah candles can be seen as a ceremonial process through which we enact the destruction that necessarily precedes rededication. We place our candle in its holder, light its tiny flame and watch wick and wax melt to the ground. We repeat for eight nights, adding one more candle, each time increasing our capacity to watch it all burn away. We love to think about renewal, but it is often very challenging to sit with that clearing away that comes before. Perhaps each night of Chanukah is an opportunity to embrace the force in each of our lives that dismantles that which no longer serves us.
While the basic commandment of Chanukah is “ner ish u beito,” one candle per household, we enhance this mitzvah by having each person in our household light for him/herself. Holding together both the basic mitzvah and this hidur, or beautification of the mitzvah, we acknowledge that both on the level of the collective and the level of the individual we must practice clearing away all that holds us back.
In order to come to a true rededication we must recognize the limitations of the structures and frameworks we currently have. This semester, as I pass through the halfway point in my rabbinic studies, I have been struggling with allowing old parts of myself to die in order for me to truly step into my power and potential as a rabbi. I have been needing to practice taking the surety and vision that got me to where and melting it down in order to move to where I need to be.
What if each Chanukah we allowed the burning of the candles to be a meditation on what aspects of our identity—as individuals and as a people—we need to let die away in order to rededicate ourselves to our highest path? What old ideas of what holiness is, who Gd is, what constitutes our connection to the land, what it means to be a people, who we are, and who we could be can we allow to melt away in order to see what new may come in their place?
It is a scary thing to embrace the destructive force. Once we dismantle what is, who knows exactly what will take its place? How can we take apart that which we have grown accustomed to and have come to rely on? Perhaps that is why we have the requirement of pirsumei nisa, making public the miracle. Rather than embark on this task alone, we put our burning candles in the window of our home, facing the street, so that all who pass by can see. We light to signal to our community that we are practicing the holy art of destruction and that none of us is alone on this path.
This Chanukah may we allow ourselves to be held by the darkness even as we kindle light, and as we traverse the unknown may we find comfort in the glow of one another’s face from across the menorah.
Image from Marcus Obal (Attribution via Wikimeida Commons)