Albert Einstein once famously quipped that, "There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." What a powerful message. The choice, ultimately, is ours.
To an extent, I am comforted by Einstein's remarks. I can teach myself, or enlist the support and help of others, to reframe the way in which I experience the world and its events. Somewhere within a potential exists to sense miracles just about anywhere. And yet, the world itself does not make it so easy, regardless of how much desire I may feel or contain inside. War, disaster, gun violence, economic upheaval, and a social system that too often empowers people to treat others as nothing but mere objects -- to use and take advantage of -- all strain to quash my optimistic outlook to see the world as wholly miraculous. For this challenge, thank God, we have a unique message from Hannukah and its lights.
The Talmud teaches us in the Tractate Shabbat, 22a:
"Raba says: The obligation is to place the Hannukah candles in the handbreadth closest to the door. And where (exactly) does one place it? Rabbi Aha son of Rava says: On the right side (of the doorway). Rabbi Shmuel from Difti differs: On the left side (of the doorway)."
The decided law is that the Hannukah candles are placed on the left side (of the doorway), such that the candles will be on the left and the mezuzah will be on the right.
At first glance, this Talmudic debate smacks of petty irrelevance. Is this what a religious life really demands? Why should which side I place the hannukiah, and how close it may or may not be to the door, matter at all?! I am lighting it. I am performing the critical action of the obligation, and I am making the miracle known to others (pirsumei nissa -- the underlying reason for lighting the hannukiah)!
But like many of the holy debates found in the Talmud, the surface argument can often obscure the essential value. Here's the critical question the rabbis are likely asking: How can we transform the space of our dwelling places on Hannukah such that the eternal message of the candles penetrate us? Or, how does the physical space of sacred obligation impact the spiritual/emotional plane of life?
The answer lies in the Talmud's resolution. Place the candles on the left side of your entrance. Because just over to the right hangs the quintessential and tangible expression of Jewish identity in the home, the mezuzah.
What a striking image!
It is also realistic. If one really strives to experience the world as wholly miraculous, or even enhance opportunities to see the many hidden miracles God places around us, let multiple senses be employed.
How so? The hannukiah serves to help us lift our eyes to the miracles often within eyesight, the wonders we more easily see. And the mezuzah contains inside of it mini-scrolls of parchment with the words of the Shema (Hear!) handwritten on it. Each time we enter and exit our homes the mezuzah harkens us to listen for any moment of transcendence. On Hannukah, the holiday whose only active obligation is publicizing the miracle by lighting candles, and in the precarious time in which we now live, we need both. We need our eyes to see what our ears may miss, and our ears to hear what our eyes can't capture.
Today, many of us are unable to place our candles in the doorway, or even directly in public view. So our challenge is even greater, while the goal remains steadfast.
As Hannukah approaches: How will we thoughtfully design the space that shelters our light? With what will we surround the hannukiah to support us in recognizing miracles that often lie right in front of us but go unnoticed? Who might we invite (living in this world or not) that is in deep need of companionship and light?
Surround ourselves with holy reminders, and we may end up rousing and enabling the spark that demands we experience and foster the wonders that really do exist in our world.
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