A Hasidic Teaching About Hanukkah For This Divisive Holiday Season

lit-menorah

The notion that Hanukkah conveys an urgent message about diminishing one’s anger, being compassionate to the lost, wicked, and alienated, and abandoning judgementalism might seem surprising. After all, isn’t this the holiday that celebrates the triumph of the righteous and a military victory against the oppressive other? A holiday that celebrates lines drawn in the sand and a vivid sense of black and white? Well, that fails to take into consideration the Rabbinic transformation of the holiday- first at the hands of the Talmudic Rabbis, and then at the hands of Chasidic mystics like Reb Nosson of Nemirov (R’ Nathan Sternhartz, 1780-1844).

 

Reb Nosson was the amenuensis of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), his closest disciple and secretary, and single handedly responsible for the preservation of Rebbe Nachman’s mystical writings and famed stories. Reb Nosson was also a brilliant teacher and writer in his own right, and his letters and commentaries are studied to this day by Hasidim. Among the works he left behind is a massive, ingenious commentary on the Shulchan Aruch. This commentary, called “Likutey Halachot” (Collected Writings on Jewish Laws) is a penetrating, kaleidoscopic meditation on the spiritual and psychological implications of Jewish legal rulings, using his master Rebbe Nachman’s teachings as the theological lodestone.  It is here that we see Reb Nosson’s perennially relevant insights into Hanukkah.

 

Light

When the Seleucid Greek Empire attempted to suppress Jewish religious practices, the Maccabees, led by Matityahu and his son Yehuda, defeated the Greeks. The Temple, which had been intentionally profaned by the Greek army, was restored and rededicated. This was established as a holiday early on, and the rededication of the Temple was celebrated by no less of a Jewish celebrity than Jesus less than than two hundred years later, according to the book of John.

Some time later the Rabbis canonized a story about a tiny amount of pure oil in the Temple burning miraculously for eight days (in Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 21b). The Rabbis chose to put the miracle of burning oil and the imagery of light at the centre of Hanukkah. To quote Malka Simkovitch, a Jewish scholar:

From a historical vantage point, there is no doubt that the origin of the holiday lies in the Hasmonean military victory. However, the rabbis effectively rebranded the holiday so that instead of glorifying Hasmonean military prowess, the holiday instead glorifies the unconditional and miraculous divine light that Jews can depend on, even in the gloomiest of darkness.

In the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) Hillel and Shammai, eternal sparring partners in the transcendent realm of Jewish archetypes, have an argument about the way the Hanukkah lights should be kindled. Shammai says the light should be reduced every day (from 8 to 1) and Hillel says they should be increased every day (from 1 to 8). In Likutey Halakhot 4.11, Reb Nosson writes that this debate highlights Shammai’s strictness and Hillel’s kindness. Both agree that the spiritual light of the holiday increases day by day. Hillel thus argues that we should add another candle each day. Yet this is very reason Shammai thinks we should reduce the candles- if we make so much spiritual light accessible, the “wicked and the distant (from Torah)” may make use of it!

 

This debate reflects a deeper rift between the houses of Shammai and the houses of Hillel, Reb Nosson writes. Hillel generally believes, as is shown in the famous Torah story about his patient response to the potential convert who impertinently asked him to explain the whole Torah on one foot, that spiritual light should be given out freely without fear or judgementalism. Shammai disagrees, as shown by his chasing that same convert out of his house angrily brandishing a tool he had been using. Though Jewish tradition historically and officially favoured Hillel, it is sad to see how much contemporary Ultra-Orthodoxy has defected to the school of Shammai, both with regards to converts and much else. The house of Hillel, Reb Nosson explains, believed that the more light was available, the more “we need to shine this light into the world, to illuminate the entire world, to being closer even the most distant people, to enlighten the smallest and lowest, to heal the most spiritually ill.”

 

“How could anyone think we should decrease holiness?”, Reb Nosson asks, and then answers: “There are tzaddikim (righteous ones) who are truly great….due to the intensity of their holiness, they distance people and decrease holiness, for people become angry with them for being unable to accept their behaviour. But this is not what God desires. God always desires lovingkindness, and that the tzaddikim should always have compassion….even when God himself is in great anger with them on account of their conduct, He wants the tzaddikim to pray for them and elevate them. As our sages said on the verse, “Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp, far from the camp” (Exodus 33:56): Rashi’s commentary adds that God says, ‘If I am angry and you are angry, who will bring them close?’.

 

Reb Nosson goes on to enumerate other examples from the books of the Prophets showing God’s desire that tzaddikim take the side of the people, not the side of God’s holiness and judgement. He then goes on to assert that the greater the holiness one attains, the more careful on should be not to be angry or judgemental to those “lesser” than yourself, but rather the more you should exert yourself to “cleverly come up with new strategies and “constrictions” (tzimtzumim, which here means bringing things down to their level) to bring more and more souls closer and to heal even the worst and the sickest.”

The point here is not to be a clever salesman, but rather something more akin to Vygotsky’s “zones of proximity”- one needs to empathetically understand where these others are and then modify one’s message in whatever way needed to reach them and bring them authentic healing.

 

“All this is represented by the Chanukkah candles”, finishes Reb Nosson brilliantly, “which are lit below ten handbreadths, and this is why they must be lit in an increasing number.” In other words, the ritual of the menorah teaches us that unbounded light must be freely given, restricted and shaped so it can reach who it needs to be reached; that it must be at our level; and that it should slowly increase. Hanukkah, says Reb Nosson, is a lesson in generosity and pedagogy. It is also important to recognize that what makes the light shareable in the first place is the righteous one’s abandonment of anger, judgement and fear. This lesson couldn’t be more needed as we go into our Hanukkah festival in a world of divisions with vast gulfs of mis-understanding, anger, judgement and fear.

 

I am not suggesting that those reading (or writing) this article are tzaddikim, but Rebbe Nachman taught that everyone has a good point- a point of messianic light, or tzaddik-ness, that might shine towards a friend in a certain situation when the friend needs it (Likutey Moharan 34). We may find ourselves in that situation this holiday season in any number of ways. If we regard the impure other, rendered so by any number of things, perhaps by pro-Trump (or anti-Trump) comments, with fear, anger or judgement, then we miss what Reb Nosson says is a fundamental lesson of Hanukkah.

 

Reb Nosson’s lesson would first suggest that we need to abandon anger, fear and holier-than-thou judgement before we engage with our challenging friend or relative. We need to think about where they are at and why, and try to share what light we can. We should not go for broke. Maybe we can win a small victory, a little “a-ha” or a tiny concession and be happy with that. Maybe not- maybe all we can accomplish is to draw that person close and keep them in relationship to us. That might be the smallest reali light we can manage, but it might be something we can build on in the future, step by step, light by light.

 

 

Two Breslov Essays on Meditation: On Present Moment Awareness and the Meditation of The Besht

http://breslovcenter.blogspot.com/2011/10/living-in-present-moment.html

http://breslovcenter.blogspot.com/2011/09/baal-shem-tovs-way-of-meditation.html

From the second source, compiled by R’ Dovid Sears, a quote from the Maggid of Mezritch:

Contemplating the Word “Echad (One)”

“ ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One’ (Deuteronomy 6:6). When during this part of the prayer service a person recites the word ‘One,’ he should contemplate that the Holy One, blessed be He, is all that truly exists in the universe, for ‘the entire world is filled with His Glory’ (Isaiah 6:3). One must realize that he is nothing, for the essence of a person is his soul, and the soul is but a ‘portion of God Above’ (Shefa Tal 1a). Therefore, nothing truly exists except the Holy One, blessed be He.”

Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch, Likkutim Yekarim (sec. 161)

Intriguing

“If you decide to take pity on yourself and consider your eternal purpose, here is your entire remedy: pay no attention at all to whatever you may be in your own eyes.”

-Reb Nosson of Nemirov, z”l (1780-1844)

(Likutey Halachot – Laws of Reading the Torah 6:17; quoted in Meshivat Nefesh by Rabbi Alter of Teplik, z”l, translated by Avraham Greenbaum as Restore My Soul.)

Parshat Vayakhel: G-d’s Shadow

In this week’s parsha we find the divinely inspired craftsman Betsalel, who is “wise of heart”. Betsalel is put in charge of building the mishkan, the portable tent-temple which was to serve as the holy place for Israel in the desert. Betsalel’s name means “in the shadow of G-d”, which seems to suggest the very close relationship that this inspired artist had with Divinity (for further discussion of divine art see R’ Jonathan Sacks http://www.ou.org/torah/article/gds_shadow/?sms_ss=email&at_xt=4d67395b8ef5ed0c%2C0).

His name, Betsalel, points to a quality that all of humanity posseses. As it says in the morning ritual for putting on the Talis (prayer shawl):

מַה יָּקָר חַסְדְּךָ אֱלהִים. וּבְנֵי אָדָם בְּצֵל כְּנָפֶיךָ יֶחֱסָיוּן:

Mah yakar hasdecha Elohim uvnei Adam b’tsel k’nafecha y’hesayun

How precious is your kindness, Source of all Powers: the children of Adam in the shadow of your wings will shelter.

(Seder levishat tsitsit, Siddur Avodat HaLev p.128).

The reference here is explicitly to “the children of Adam”, ie. all of humanity. This is not exclusive to those with the holy spirit (ruah ha’kodesh) like Betsalel.

B’tsel c’nafecha: In the shadow of your wings. This imagery seems to combine the sense of a bird being sheltered within the wings of its parent and the sense of a bird flying high above, its shadow falling below as a guide and sign to those beneath it. Here we can read two ways in which being in the shadow of G-d manifests G-d’s kindness.

There is another verse which further develops this idea:

ה’ צלך על יד ימינך

Hashem tsilcha ad yad yeminecha

G-d will be your shadow at your right hand.

This verse, from Tehillim (Psalms), inverts the idea: here G-d is your shadow!  Rabbenu Yonah, z”l, comments:

“This is the meaning of the verse, ‘ה’ צלך על יד ימינך’—’G-d is your shadow upon your right hand.’ Just as a shadow mirrors our actions, so too does G-d act toward us as we act toward Him. If we cry to Him, He is right there crying alongside us. If we distance ourselves from Him, He distances Himself from us. And when we draw near to Him, He draws close to us.”

In what way does this manifest G-d’s kindness? One might wish it was the opposite way: when we pull way G-d pulls closer, giving us encouragement, and when we draw close G-d pulls back, spurring us on.

In Rabbenu Yonah’s image of the shadow dance  G-d’s movements act as a sign to us of our own spiritual state. When we feel the presence of G-d’s shadow- comforting presence and signs- it is a sign that we are drawing closer, when we feel distance and confusion it is a sign that we ourselves have drawn further away. Rabbenu Yonah says this is the way G-d inspires us to grow and change- this shadow dance acts a barometer for the state of our da’at– our consciousness. When we act, think, and speak in certain ways those things which we associate with closeness to G-d- more peace, more joy, a sense of flow and being in the right place, more virtue, more calm, more kindness, and the feeling of being led and being given signs, to name a few- these things increase. When we act, speak, and think in other ways then these same qualities decrease, to be replaced with their opposites. This is a sign to us that we need to do teshuva- return. We need to search our actions and see where we have drawn away from G-d and from ourselves.

Of course it should be remembered that even when the shadow of G-d is distant this is only an appearance.  Rabbi Nachman, zy”a, teaches that “No one should ever give up for himself, however fall they have fallen. Even if she is lying in the very pit of hell, she must never despair of G-d’s help. Even there she can draw close… for ‘the whole earth is filled with divine presence (m’lo kol ha’aretz k’vodo- Isaiah 6:3) ‘ [LM II.72]”. Further, “If a person falls from their level, he should know that it is something sent to him by the hand of heaven. The whole purpose of of this rejection is that she should be drawn closer. The reason for the fall is to awaken this individual so that she steps up her efforts to draw closer… (LM I.261)”. We see from these quotes that according to R’ Nachman G-d’s presence is never actually lessened, only our perception of it, or one might speculate, perhaps the way that G-d is manifest in our consciousness changes.

All of this seems true while we are in a relationship with G-d’ s “mere” shadow, the place where most of us can be found (at the best of times!) It is worth remembering, though, that when we have ascended to a higher level all this will be revealed as Godliness and Holiness. R’ Nachman teaches elsewhere (Sichot HaRan 136) that the “shadow” itself is created by our incomplete awareness and purification: “When you succeed in nullifying the shadow completely, turning everything into absolute nothingness, then G-d’s glory is revealed in the world. There is nothing to hide the light and cause a shadow. And then “The whole earth is filled with divine presence (Isaiah 6:3)”.

This is “the coming of the Messiah”, when “the knowledge of G-d will fill the world like the waters fill the sea” and “G-d will be one and His name will be one”, ie. there will be no perception of distance from, or absence of, divinity. As it says in the Talmud, ” ‘On that day G-d will be one and His name will be one’: is this meant to imply that right now G-d is not one? No, what it means is that in our present state we make a distinction between the different types of experiences that G-d sends us. …but in the time to come we will bless G-d for everything (Pesachim 50a)”.

We can understand this on a global level or as the time of individual attainment of this awareness. As one great tzaddik said (R’ Nachman?), “For me Moshiach (the Messiah) has already come.” This is because for him the boundary between G-d and not-G-d had collapsed, and ha-kol letova, everything was for the good.

These ideas are reflected beautifully in a recent song by Darshan (http://darshanmusic.com/):

As I wait, I will sing

I will take shelter of your wings

please do not be late

don’t delay the spring

we’ll celebrate

both Queen and King

The singer here waits for the full revelation of G-d that comes with the days of Messiah/messianic consciousness, and in the meantime sings (draws closer to G-d). He prays that the spring of renewal of the world/his own consciousness should not be delayed, for then the Queen (the Shekhina/ Shadow/Revealed, Immanent aspect of G-d, Teva/Nature, Elohim) and the King ( The Holy One, Blessed Be/G-d’s hidden, transcendent aspect/ YHWH) will be both celebrated as One.

Speedily in our days, amen.



The Oy Vay School of Buddhism: A Comparison of Jewish and Buddhist Mysticism

An excellent essay by a great teacher of Breslov mysticism and Jewish ethics, R’ Sears:

http://www.nachalnovea.com/breslovcenter/articles/OY_VAY_School_of_Buddhism.pdf

A Hint of Levinas in R’Nachman of Breslov (hamayvin yavin)?

” ‘Every person must say, The whole world was created for me (b‘ shvili nivra ha’olam– Sanhedrin 37a).’

If the world was created for me, it is therefore my constant obligation to examine and consider what is needed to repair the world and provide everyone’s needs, and to pray for them.”

Likutey Moharan 1,5


Two Interesting New Posts from R’ David Sears

from the Breslov Center blog:

on converts in the Breslov community: http://breslovcenter.blogspot.com/2011/01/converts-in-breslov-community.html

and on the yartzheit of the great Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan which just passed:

http://breslovcenter.blogspot.com/2011/01/in-memory-of-rabbi-aryeh-kaplan.html