Tuesday, December 11, 2012

These Lights Are Holy — And Nothing Else

Tonight is the 4th night of Chanukah. When we light our candles tonight, will say the two blessings, and then all recite a short paragraph, "HaNeirot Hallelu." it reads:
We light these lights for the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles that you made for our forefathers, in those days at this season, through your holy priests. During all eight days of Chanukah, these lights are holy, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them, but only to look at them; In order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for your miracles, Your wonders, and your salvations. 
It's kind of nice to have this little piece which describes the reasons for the ritual we just did — sometimes I wish that every ritual came with an explanation! But, there's one sentence in here which I love more than the rest*. "These lights are holy, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them."

* I can't remember for sure, but I'm fairly certain that this insight came from either Dr. Larry Hoffman or Dr. Joel Hoffman. Most of my good ideas are pilfered from one of them, anyway…

The lights of the Chanukah menorah have one purpose, and one purpose only. They are there to "proclaim the miracle." They are there to advertise God's greatness, and our gratitude for it. That's it – that's their complete and sole purpose in life.

By the way – that's the real reason for the shamash (the helper candle). It's not there, primarily, too light the other candles (not too long ago, all menorahs were oil lamps; it would be pretty hard to use one oil lamp to light the rest, the way we use a candle, now!). Is there to provide light for use. You see, it's forbidden to use the Chanukah lights for any practical purpose. But, it's always possible that we'll accidentally use it — that, for example, we'll read a book nearby, and inadvertently use the menorah as a source of light. So, we light one extra light so that we can claim (who doesn't love a legal fiction?) that we weren't using the holy lights, rather this extra, ordinary light, instead.

Or, another to frame that is that the shamash is there to guarantee (and I'd add, to remind us) that the Chanukah lights cannot serve any purpose, other than their primary one – holiness.

I love this simple idea that we have something in our homes, even temporarily, which serves no practical purpose. It is there only, and adamantly only, to remind us of holiness. To proclaim God's presence. To remind us to, in Heschel's words*, stand still and consider.

* both Hoffmans and Heschel in one blog post! I think I get bonus points for that! Let's see if I can squeeze Kushner and/or Green in here, just to round things out…

I think it's an incredibly important, and powerful, idea. All of us should have something in life which is there to remind us of that which is greater than ourselves. Of that which is holy. If you aren't a religious person, then it doesn't have to be a classically religious symbol, like a menorah. But, find something in the world which you can set aside as a touchstone of holiness. Something which serves no purpose other than to remind you that there is holiness in the world. That holiness is always present, even if we sometimes forget to look for it.

These lights are holy. They are nothing else. Thank God!

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