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Divine Light and Human Hands: A Mystical Teaching on Hanukkah

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"Blessed are You YHWH our God Who performed miracles for our ancestors in days past at this time."

What does it mean to light a Hanukkah candle?

One response I have been reflecting on this year comes from the early Hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (d. 1810). The Berditchever (as he is affectionately called by his disciples and admirers) was part of the vanguard of Hasidism, the great spiritual revival movement that first swept through the Eastern European Jewish community in the late 18th century.

In a brief but powerful sermon, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak calls our attention to the last words of the second blessing recited over the candles each night -- "ba-z'man ha-zeh." This phrase is usually translated as "at this time," meaning that God performed miracles for the Maccabees and their community at this time of year centuries ago.

The Berditchever reminds us that the words "ba-z'man ha-zeh" can also be read as "within time," meaning that God's participation in the events of Hanukkah took place within the bounds of nature, within the limits of space and time as we normally experience them, and not in a supernatural manner.

According to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, while God played a miraculous role in this ancient drama, it was subtle and involved a delicate interplay with the human actors in this saga. He contrasts this mode of divine engagement with God's actions in the Exodus, in which the Almighty overturned the natural order, using "signs and wonders" to put down Pharaoh's army and free the Israelite slaves.

Interestingly, in this teaching the Berditchever leaves aside the rabbinic legend about the wondrous jug of oil that lasted for eight days after Judah and his forces recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem -- the story that has become the great miracle-tale of Hanukah.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak views Hanukkah as a model for understanding how the Divine interacts with Israel and the world in contemporary times -- "ba-z'man ha-zeh." While one might wish for God's supernatural intervention, the Divine acts in a much more refined manner. In the mystical terminology of Hasidism, God functions from within a state of tzimtzum (veiled appearance), active but not easily perceptible to the seeker.

The Berditchever does not explain in this teaching why God chooses to engage in a more revealed or concealed manner during different periods of Jewish history. However, in other teachings he explains that tzimtzum offers the devotee the opportunity to become a more active participant in shaping a life of holiness and to work with the Divine to sanctify all of existence. In othe words, God's concealment is an invitation to us to take greater initiative.

I can imagine the Berditchever standing before his Hasidic community on a cold night in early December with a Hanukkah candle in hand, gently reassuring his followers that the Eternal is with them today just as God was present to the Maccabees long ago; that despite the darkness they may experience individually or communally, the search for divine light is not in vain. As the Berditchever stretches forth his hand to light the hanukiah (holiday candelabrum), he reminds his flock that this sacred act is itself emblematic of the Divine-human partnership: God provides the original light and we must channel it through our actions.

What I appreciate about this teaching is the creative way in which Rabbi Levi Yitzhak imbues the ritual of candle lighting with a spiritual message of hope and inspiration, while also acknowledging the mystery and complexity of the religious life. By offering his community an alternative reading of the second blessing over the candles, he seeks to provide them with a compelling theological vision that they can internalize through this embodied ritual.

Having said that, I must also admit that I struggle to understand the nature of the Divine-human relationship. While I am attracted to the Berditchever's language of the miraculous within the mundane, what do I actually mean when I say that God is involved in the workings of the world in a veiled manner?

Is this an affirmation of my belief in a Divine being who intervenes, however subtly, in historical events and individual lives? Is this a poetic expression of my faith in the capacity of human beings to transform the world? Or do I mean something else? To be honest, I don't know. At this point in my life I have many more theological questions than answers.

What I do know is that the religious language of Divine-human partnership, of tzimtzum and of hidden light has helped me to cultivate a sense of personal responsibility, of humility and of hope. I know that the world is broken and that I must play a role in healing it. I know that my role will be limited, but that I can make a genuine contribution to this sacred project. And still, I yearn daily for greater spiritual clarity.

As I stand with candle in hand, preparing to light my own hanukiah, I try to bring my whole self to this ritual act, including my questions. One of the traditions of Hanukah candle-lighting that I most appreciate is that we are not to use the light for any purpose other than to bask in its beautiful and mysterious glow. For me, this is a precious opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the symbols and stories of this festival of lights during these dark days of winter.

Rabbi Or Rose is an associate dean at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He is the co-editor of Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life: Classical Texts, Contemporary Reflections (Jewish Lights 2010).

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