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Seeing Lessons

Seeing Lessons

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We've all heard of music lessons and driving lessons, as these are skills that need learning. But seeing lessons? Seeing is something that a healthy person is born with the capacity to do automatically; why would one need lessons?

But learning to see is just what the primary observance of Chanukah asks us to do. In HaNeirot Halalu -- the short prayer sung immediately after the lighting of the Chanukah lights -- we say: "These lights are holy... We're not allowed to make practical use of them; they are only to be seen."

This is actually quite curious, inasmuch as the other types of lights we are asked to kindle as a mitzvah -- i.e., the Shabbat and Festival lights -- are specifically designed to be used for illumination. With Chanukah, we are forced to do nothing with the lights except to look at them.

Every Jewish holiday carries a lesson that has the capacity -- if absorbed -- to enhance our lives throughout the year. A key component of Chanukah is to teach us to see in a completely new way.

If we look at a Chanukah lamp or candle, we will see that it has three mandatory components: 1) a wick 2) fuel (e.g. oil or wax) 3) the flame carried by the wick and fed by the oil.1

To have a clear, enduring flame all three components are necessary. A wick ignited is soon extinguished in an uncontrolled and smoky blaze to oblivion. Oil or wax without a wick will not burn in an illuminating manner and is very hard to ignite, as it is a cold and inert substance under normal conditions. And of course, without the flame there is no chance of light.

During the historical period leading up to the events commemorated in Chanukah, the challenge of the Hellenists to the Jews committed to their beliefs was: Why do you insist on proclaiming the supreme purpose of doing mitzvot with certain objects and certain places in certain times? Symbolism is fine, but do you really think that there is intrinsic value in these practices? Can you not have great spiritual experiences without all these physical details? Philosophize, meditate, but why the tefillin? Why the Shabbat? Why the brit? Be spiritual or be physical, but who are you kidding by straddling the fence and pretending that physical activity has intrinsic spiritual value?

The Jewish response is that the soul and body are indeed dichotomous and struggle with each other. The body desires the transient and tangible, the soul desires the eternal and ethereal. When the upwardly striving flame of the soul meets the inertial and cold wick of the body they struggle and smoke. Either the body wins and the flame gutters out, or the soul wins and consumes the body, leaving only formless soot behind. The Western traditions of hedonism and ascetics are two sides of this same Hellenic coin. In the dichotomous model, one side can only assert itself at the expense of the other.

Judaism offers another model -- the lamp. The flame does not consume the wick; it is the source of a clear and enduring light. The oil mediates between the wick and the flame, slowly being consumed whilst the flame and wick maintaining their integrity at peace with each other. The oil is the mitzvot -- the precepts of Judaism. These are physical things within which G‑d asks us to find Him. The physical also flows from G‑d's essence. The challenge of the physical is finding the G‑dliness in it, as the physical is darkness and concealment, concealing the creative force within it rather than revealing it as the spiritual does.

However, when we surrender ourselves to the divine will and say, "Show us where You are in the physical world," we are guided to the mitzvot -- the physical actions G‑d creates as doorways to the infinite within our finite world. When our body (the wick) is immersed in this "oil" and the flame of the soul is applied to our bodies, action expresses the G‑dly and the body is illuminated and at peace with the light of the soul. We see that there is no dichotomy in life, only possible harmonies.

G‑d is truth, and truth is that which is always the same under all circumstances. If G‑d is less present or available in the physical realm, then that is not truth. How is G‑d available in the physical? By opening the doors that are the practice of the mitzvot, which are G‑d's presence in the fact that He is requesting these things of us.

These are the "seeing lessons" the Chanukah lights teach us. Never see the physical as a contradiction to the G‑dly, but as necessary ingredient to an illumined and just world. G‑d is only real to us when He can be present everywhere under all circumstances. Never see the physical as the enemy or the spiritual as impossible to attain. See them as the ingredients of a lamp that just need to be drawn together as one to shine.

See the lights of Chanukah, and nothing will ever look the same.

Footnotes
1.
an electric light or a burning pool of flammable liquid do not fulfill the mitzvah of kindling the Chanukah lights.
Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe is a frequent contributor of articles and media to Chabad.org, is Dean of the Institute of American and Talmudic Law in New York, N.Y., and Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Torah in Springfield. Mass. Rabbi Yaffe has lectured and led seminars throughout North America, as well as in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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