“I just returned from an amazing three day retreat that inspired me to new levels of love and appreciation of everything Jewish.”

— Shifra Bemis

Posts Tagged: Chanukah

Loved, Clear, Courageous

Hanukkah is upon us and with it the aptness of all the metaphors of bringing light into the darkness. A less examined theme of the holiday, however, at least in many spiritual circles, is holy boldness – the decisive action that the Macabees took in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds that enabled them to defeat the wicked government that vastly outweighed them.

We tend to shy away from exploring this kind of strong action because it can seem so antithetical to the spiritual endeavor of finding inner peacefulness and because it can too easily veer into bold fanaticism, as the Hasmonians themselves exemplified. And yet, holy boldness, the courage of the spiritual warrior, is an important middah, or trait, even (and maybe especially) for the contemplative repertoire.

One teaching on how to approach this boldness comes from the daily liturgy. In the morning service, the first prayer before the Shema offers an image of angels. The prayer book describes the angels in vivid terms: “They are all loved, they are all clear, they are all bold and they all do the will of their Maker with fear and awe.”

At first, the description appears rather random. Why those three particular adjectives, other than the fact that the Hebrew words for “loved,” “clear” and “bold” follow the order of the Hebrew alphabet? But if we look carefully, using what we know from our contemplative practice, something quite beautiful emerges.

First, the angels know that they are ahuvim, loved. This is the crucial first step, to take in the awareness of being precious, seen, cherished. From that place of warmth and connection, they can be brurim, clear. Feeling loved can help clear the delusions so that we can see with greater clarity what needs to be done, as well as our motivation for acting. And then, when the path forward is clear, the angels can act as giborim, as courageous and bold heroes. But even here, they are aligning themselves with humility and a sense of serving – not of their own will, but of the great Source of life and creativity in the universe.

What marvelous instructions! A courage that is rooted in love, shone through with clarity and in humble alignment with what needs to happen. May this Hanukkah provide us with opportunities to explore this holy boldness so that we can through our actions help bring more light into this dark season.

Chanukah

Menorah

 

As I walk through New York City these days, particularly in the evening, I am conscious of a desire to hold on to this magical time of year and not to let it pass.  The city is filled with lights and decorations and people in beautiful clothes; the sidewalks are crowded with Christmas trees and holiday shoppers.  It seems like everyone is heading out to a party and the darkness is warm and cozy, not cold and lonely.  Wouldn’t it be great if it were like this all winter long until spring comes?  And come to think of it, why stop just because the days are longer?

One could argue that the story of Chanukah is also about holding on.  The second blessing reminds us of the miracles that were performed on our behalf at this time of year – this very same time of year.  Now it’s just like it was back then!  We want to remember the miracles and the deliverances, to keep the power of memory, to bring back traditions of our real or mythical ancestors – the specific latke technique, the Yiddish or Ladino melodies.

How profound, however, that the candles we use to make known the miracles are small, thin candles that go out in less than an hour!  They are not like Shabbat candles that last through dinner or like yahrzeit candles that burn 24 hours.  In fact, one of my family’s traditions is betting on which candle will go out last and watching intently as the flames flare and gutter and go out, releasing its twisting ribbon of smoke.

We know that everything passes – the candles, the holidays, the winter, life itself.  Even the miracles come and go; the siddur reminds us that new miracles are constantly with us, morning, noon and night.  The ephemeral candles remind us that light is beautiful, even when it’s fleeting – perhaps even because it is fleeting.  They remind us that joy and gratitude in and of themselves are miracles of the spirit.

Wishing you and your loved ones a Chanukah filled with light and all kinds of miracles.