I was a teenager the first time I was in Jerusalem for Hannukah. Coming from Christmas-centric life in Toronto where every grocery, pharmacy, and book store was splashed in tinsel and endlessly rang out Christmas muzak, I remember how surprising, how moving it was to be in Jerusalem and feel the presence of Hannukah everywhere. Sitting in an Italian restaurant, the whole dining room was brought to a hush as the owner lit the candles of the hannukiah and everyone in the restaurant sang together. Entire main streets of store windows had electric hannukiah bulbs shining into the night. But I found the most striking sight walking in older neighborhoods where the four-story apartment buildings with little courtyards in front of them had low stone walls abutting the sidewalk – and there, sitting on the stone walls, at the edge of each building’s property, were glass aquariums with lit hannukiyot inside them. Along the length of these quiet streets, the sidewalks were flanked with these glowing, flickering outdoor flames.
The Sages of the Talmud teach – it is a mitzvah to place the hannukiah at the entrance of your home, on the outside. And if you live upstairs, they alternatively assert, place the hannukiah in the window, facing the public domain. Igniting the flame (hadlakah) is only half of the practice at the heart of lighting the Chanukah candles. The lighting is partnered with the act of placing the candles (hanacha) so that they are visible to the outside world. This can be within the warmth and enclosure of your home, shining outward, but if possible, we are called upon to bring this light to the outer edges of our property, to the farthest boundary that our personal domain can reach, touching the public sphere.
What a beautiful image for practice. Chanukah candles serve such a different purpose than Shabbat candles. Shabbat candles are meant to give light to our individual homes, to bring pleasure as well as utilitarian light to the intimacy of our meal and to the company of those gathered around our Shabbat tables. Even the circling gesture of waving our hands three times around the Shabbat candles gathers their light inward. The placement of Chanukah candles, on the other hand, is guiding our intention and attention outward. It is striking that the light of the Chanukah candles should not be functional. It is not intended to light up our homes and we are prohibited from making any mundane use of it. We are instructed simply, subtly, just to look at the light of the candles, and to make it accessible, available for others to be able to look at it too. It becomes our conscious intention for the light that we ignite to touch all those whose lives brush past our own. The boundary between inside and outside dissolves along with the boundary between insider and outsider. And it’s the light that connects us to one another.
So let’s ask the question that carries the literal flame of the candles into the illumination of our souls – in this dissolving of boundaries, how do we strengthen and direct our inner light so that it extends to the outer limits of our reach, enabling many, many others to be lit up by it?
R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (18th century Hasidic master) teaches that hanacha, placement, comes from the same root as menucha, rest. He states, “And menucha – rest is called the container in which you put love.” The practice of lighting and placing the Hannukah candles is teaching us to locate a quality of restfulness within. There, we create a container within us for love to be nurtured and amplified so that it can be felt by others, so that it becomes visible to others in the softness and warmth of our gaze, our presence. As the hours of sunlight grow brief and night stretches long, as the air gets colder and the impulse to hibernate and withdraw might feel strong, we are invited to instead extend warmth and light through our whole beings to everyone we encounter. We’re invited to be creative about the ways we reach beyond our usual circles, to extend loving. We’re invited to be daring in thinking of the directions we extend ourselves – to reach toward painful places, to meet people in the rifts of conflict, in the dissonance of difference, to find delightful strangers and mirror to them their beauty and goodness and to receive others mirroring your own beauty and goodness back to you.
We have the opportunity to help each other in this. Know that we are in a collective project, generating collective energy in reaching light outward with compassion and kindness. Know that you can bring relief. Know that you can bring love into much needed places. The more we practice, the more radiant the inner container becomes, and the further and clearer its light can extend.