There is a mystical teaching that the light of the first day of Creation is hidden away in this world as the Or HaGanuz, the Hidden Light. This light is no ordinary light. The Or HaGanuz brings the heat of timeless, limitless energy that penetrates and permeates matter and animates our physical bodies. It also exists as light waves of thought and feeling within our more subtle bodies of emotion and intellect. The Zohar states that this first light of Creation, this hidden light, is hesed, lovingkindness. Vibrating within each of us is this primordial, hidden light of love.
In the Hanukkah story, hesed wins. Light increases and drives away darkness. Hanukkah thus challenges me to reveal and to embody the healing power of love. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Sometimes, being a Heart Warrior, a modern Maccabee, requires the courage to feel how my body holds fear and the willingness to let it be touched and softened by the transforming presence of loving attention. Other times, being a Maccabee means standing firm and strong, emboldened by the love I feel lighting me up inside.
How do we embody this miraculous power of love? We bring awareness to the body and pay attention without judgment to whatever is arising. We meet our bodies with compassion and curiosity. When we can receive our own beings just as we are, we strengthen a vessel that can reveal the hidden light of hesed that is inscribed in our very cells, no matter what we are feeling in the moment.
Begin standing with your feet hip distance apart. Let your arms rest by your sides. Close your eyes and feel your feet on the floor. Draw a deep breath through your nose. Watch the breath move down through the neck, the chest and belly, into your hips, and back out through the nose. Repeat several times. Visualize the breath kindling the light hidden inside the face, the neck, your heart, under the shoulder blades, your belly, and hips.Allow the sense of light to grow inside you with each soft, deep breath.
Next, again begin by feeling your feet firmly on the floor. From that grounding, as you inhale, raise your arms and clench your fists as you cross the forearms over each other in front of your chest. Furrow your brow and clench your jaw.
As you exhale, release the fists and uncross your arms. Let the arms lower towards the earth with palms open and facing forward.
Repeat several times. Notice what happens to the energy in your body as you clench your fists and cover your heart. Notice what you feel as you soften the hands and release the hands and arms by your sides. Explore moving your arms and torso in ways that clench, hold and guard your chest, and those which open and soften the hands and chest. See, with curiosity, how you move between states of open and closed. See if you can bring the state of openness to the following posture even as you engage your muscles and find your strength:
Take your feet wide apart, facing forward. Inhale and lift your arms up to shoulder height. Spread the fingers wide. Inhale and rotate the arms so the palms face the sky and the armpits are opened upwards. Strengthen through your legs, toning through the upper thighs. Lift up through the crown and the sides of your waist as you send the tail bone to the floor and draw your stomach in towards the spine. Enjoy several long inhalations and exhalations as you sustain the muscular energy to remain firm and toned in this pose. With each breath in and out, visualize the cells of your bones, muscles, organs, tissues, each filling with light and growing softly brighter. Fill yourself with light and scan your body. Where are you holding very tightly? Can you soften and let the light bathe you there? Stand firm and burn softly, and, brightly as you embody a luminary pulsing with the light of Divinity.
Now return your feet to stand under your hips and let your arms rest by your sides. In the stillness, notice what your body is feeling as you receive the gifts of having sown seeds of light through your body in the pose. Is there tingling? Warmth? Sweat? A quickened heart rate? Feel all that there is to feel in this body now. There is no need to do anything other than be right here.
What if, as Carl Sagan asserts, we really are stardust? And what if these stellar beings we are hold the energy of hesed, lovingkindness, hidden in our DNA and physical bodies since the beginning of creation? Practice shining this love through your eyes today as you greet others. Shine it into your own heart, belly, hips, hands and head. Become a modern Maccabee, letting your firm yet open stance become the vessel through with divine light burns steadily and bright.
Many of us have come to recognize the symbolic power of the lights of Hanukkah. Hanukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev, which means around the last five days of the lunar month. Particularly when the festival falls later in December, it coincides with the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. When you combine the longest nights with waning of the moon at the end of the lunar month, when it does not appear in the night sky, you get some VERY DARK nights. It is precisely then that we light Hanukkah candles. Moreover, following the teaching of the School of Hillel, we increase the number of candles each night. So, just as the world is getting darker (at least here in the northern hemisphere), we are bringing more and more light.
But the months following Kislev are pretty dark themselves. And that darkness, and its persistence, is reflected in the Torah readings at this time of year. Hanukkah will always coincide with the Joseph story, and always with him in the “pits”. We either conclude Vayeshev with Joseph in prison, or begin Mikketz with him still there. While we witness Joseph’s rise to power, we also experience his ongoing conflict with his brothers. And when that is overcome, we suffer the death of Jacob and then Joseph in Egypt – and anticipate the slavery to come.
Furthermore, the mystical tradition identifies the weeks of first six readings of the book of Exodus as a time when negative forces prevail in the world. These weeks extend through the Hebrew months of Tevet, Shevat and into Adar. We can imagine why this might be: after all, everyone is cooped up inside, and possibly stir crazy. The weather outside is harsh, physically difficult to deal with, and hazardous to health. These months also coincide with the first six weeks of the book of Shemot (Shemot, Va’era, Bo, Beshallach, Yitro, Mishpatim). Using the initial letters of these parshiyot we can spell the word ShOVeVIM, signifying that which is wild, transgressive, backsliding. So, from the beginning of the Joseph story through to the crossing of the Sea in Beshallach, we have been living in darkness, inside and out.
So, even though we lit lights on Hanukkah, the weeks and months that follow are shadowed and dangerous, spiritually challenging and potentially dispiriting. Yet, the lights of Hanukkah are not forgotten. By the first week of Adar, just at the end of this beclouded period, we come to Moses’ birthday, 7 Adar. The midrash (Ex.R. 1:20) claims that when Moses was born the house filled with light. This was the light of Creation, the light hidden away in Torah to be revealed to us by Moses, and from which we can always find light. Although this light was “hidden away for the righteous” in the world-to-come, the Zohar claims that were it not for this lights constant radiance the world could not exist.
So, when we light the Hanukkah lights we are not only dispelling the darkness around us during that very dark week. We are bringing light into our hearts and souls to sustain us through a very dark time, so that we ultimately might taste freedom at Passover. And, this is true not only at Hanukkah, but all year round. At any moment we can turn inward to touch our own vitality, to sense the breath moving in the body, to recognize our capacity to perceive light even in the darkness, and to know that redemption will come.
“Immediately ahead are seven years of great abundance in all the land… After them will come seven years of famine, no trace of the abundance will be left in the land because of the famine thereafter, for it will be very severe.” (Gen. 41:29-31, JPS 1985)
We are promised abundance – but it would not be lasting. The riches are not for our enjoyment. Rather, they must be allocated carefully in order to enable us to make it through the impending scarcity. We would likely feel great anxiety in such a situation and a pervading sense that our blessings are fleeting. Perhaps we would live those years on edge, never quite feeling that we were doing enough to prepare. I imagine that during this time it would be incredibly difficult to simply feel a sense of being settled and content. Well beyond the pressure to prepare for the practical needs of the time of lack, the impending famine would surely impose a great psychic toll. Even in a time of plenty, one can easily have a mind and heart of famine.
Hanukkah offers a counter-orientation to this famine mind and heart. As the Talmud tells it:
מאי חנוכה דתנו רבנן בכ”ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה.
What is Hanukkah? The Sages taught, on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight…When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest. And there was [sufficient oil] there to light [the Menorah] for only day. A miracle occurred and they lit the [Menorah] from it for eight days. The next year [the Sages] instituted those days and made the holidays with [recitation of] hallel and thanksgiving. (Shabbat 21b)
Hanukkah’s teaching, embedded in this rabbinic version of the miracle of the oil, is about affirming that what we have is enough–even if it does not seem like it will be. From this place of “enoughness”, of hopeful confidence and healthy satiety, we are strengthened in our capacity to be present in our lives, and with praise and gratitude to bring light into the world.
We should not confuse this healthy sense of enoughness with a passivity or unquestioning acceptance of our lot. Rather, it can serve as a greater context within which experiences of lack can be understood and engaged with differently. Our practice – especially practice during Shabbat or holidays – can cultivate our capacity for staying anchored in this deep sense that I have enough.
This Hanukkah, try a meditation in which you sit by the light of the candles. Begin by connecting to your breath and body, close your eyes. After a few minutes, open your eyes, and look at the candle. Witness its movement. Affirm with the breath: (inhale) this light, (exhale) is enough. Let that feeling of “enoughness” fill you. Repeat.
No, that’s not a typo. Just before Labor Day, the staff at the Institute’s national offices packed up all our books and files and equipment and on Tuesday, under the expert guidance of David Cavill, our Associate Director, and Vito Marzano, our Executive Assistant, we moved into our new space. The rumors are apparently true: everything is indeed impermanent.
Our new office is a big, open space with high ceilings, wood floors and a row of huge windows facing north. From my desk, I can turn my head to look across the relatively low police station over to 31th St where construction on a brand new building is underway. It is 21 stories so far and they have labeled each floor on the outward facing concrete with huge fluorescent orange numbers. I can also see the decorative design of sphinxes and winged horses on the building directly across the street.
I am excited to set up our new space, to think about how the external can reflect the internal. What does an office that is committed to supporting the cultivation of spiritual practice look like? It’s pretty simple at this point. We have some plants and a big blue balancing ball; we have a refrigerator, a tea and coffee corner, a common table and enough floor space for meditation or yoga. We have some bookshelves. We have windows that open and show us both the sky and the people hard at work in the city around us. And we have extraordinary people, most of whom are mostly anonymous to you who participate in our programs, whose personal practice and commitment to this common work of integrity and expanded awareness are inspiring to me every day.
If you are in the neighborhood, come by and say hello! Our new address is 135 W 29th St, Ste 1103, New York, NY 10001.