A Mystical Message about Chanukah from Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi

Reb Zalman is one of the most inspired teachers of Judaism alive today. I was blessed to have him as my teacher for thirty years while I studied under his supervision for my smicha (rabbinic ordination), and he chaired the Beyt Din (rabbinic court) that granted ordination and conferred on me the title of rabbi some sixteen years ago). --Rabbi Michael Lerner

A Mystical Message about Hanukkah from Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi

Several times the Bible tells us that God wants to have a place "to make His name dwell therein" it's interesting that it says not that ‘I will dwell there’ but that my Name will dwell there. While everything isGod,  in God, the whole cosmos is not separate from God, the point that a Temple makes is  - that there is a concentrated, stronger focus of the quality of divinity for those who enter there. So while it is true that God is in everything there is, everything that is broadcasts its own quality, a Temple was a broadcasting tower from which a signal went out to the world. The carrier wave was a field of blessing and the message stream was the way in which God would like to see the world in harmony in order to receive that blessing. There would also be a certain kind of beacon in the broadcast of giving meaning to life and the sense of justice and compassion for the world. In each human being there is a receiver for that broadcast – – because divine compassion broadcasts on human wavelengths. People who are open to God and want to be open to receive that beacon can in this way recalibrate their moral and ethical life.

Although the First and the Second Temples were destroyed, the teaching says that the Third Temple is already present on a higher and more subtle vibratory scale. The broadcast comes even now from that Temple and is received by some people and – – alas – – not by others. The beacon to us human beings also invites us to contribute to that broadcast (and in the way in which we invest energy we boost the signal strength in public worship and in private prayer, in meditation and then acts of justice and compassion. We beam these back to the source of the broadcast which we call the Name of God. [There are many more possible models for that process, while they usually prefer an organismic model for the sake of modeling but this process is I find that the technical model of broadcast will help me make the point]

There are two modes of looking as reality in Jewish mysticism: a, Yichuda Ila'ah and b, yichuda tata'ah. Yichuda ila’ah, the higher union, is when we unify everything in God to the point where the infinite is the only reality there is. This points to the sentence and its intention Shma Yisrael -- Echad. Yichuda tata'ah on the other hand is indicated by the sentence that follows: Baruch Shem-Kevod-Malchuto le’olam va’ed, may the name of the glory of his kingdom/the reflection of majestic effulgence reach us here in our world. It sees the universe as God embodied in all the details of life from galaxies to humans and from humans to energy particles as one organismic, living, conscious whole.

There is a further teaching which touches the cosmic process of Yom Kippur: each Yom Kippur a new Shem , a God name is emanated downward to energize the world for the coming year. Embedded in it is the direction that divine Providence wants each part of the cosmos to take. The name that came down the year before is no longer serviceable for the present year. The Kabbalah describes it as if the energy matrix of the last year has been corrupted (by human beings trespassing on the divine intention). [Imagine; the house have a hot-air furnace and every room has filters through which the heated air passes – and it gets clogged and needs to be replaced]

The great broadcast of divine indwelling which beams to the human heart, his inner sanctuary, a hologram of the cosmic Temple, is a receiver. It therefore also depends on our attunement to receive the broadcast. I believe that every spiritual discipline is set to attune us to be able to receive this broadcast with greater fidelity. So in our liturgy we ask: "cleanse our hearts so that we might serve You in truth" Emmet/Truth has the sense of being attuned to what it is and how it is in reality.

Prior to the building of the Temple in Jerusalem we had a traveling Tabernacle and that was built after the Exodus from Egypt. The Bible tells us how it had to be built to very precise specifications. At the end of the book of Exodus there is a description of how when the Tabernacle was completed the Divine Presence made Her entrance to reside there. Later when the Bible tells us about Balaam the prophet sent to curse our people he could not help but say "how goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling place O Israel" He saw the tribes encamped about the Tabernacle in the center and all the tribes in harmony with that broadcast.   -----  What a remarkable vision that is – to be able to see all the nations on earth receiving that broadcast and living in harmony. It is such a vision that likes to appear to us in our vision of the messianic era.

The teaching we received about how the Tabernacle in the desert had to be prepared to receive the indwelling includes also the final act of anointing the surfaces of the Tabernacle with sacred oil. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Apter Rebbe, in his great work Ohev Yisrael points out that the Tabernacle came to life as a result of that anointing. In addition the lighting of the sacred candelabrum brought awareness to the sanctuary. You have here the image of something organic, alive and aware being the center from which the sacred broadcast issued.

When The Broadcast Is Denatured

It is quite easy to understand from our own lives and existence to what extent we have been flooded with information and impressions from all kinds of sources. It requires a great deal of stilling the mind in order to tune into the divine broadcast. However, the media have usurped the bandwidth of our consciousness so that only with great difficulty can we tune in to the broadcast that seeks us to live in harmony.

This is the preface to the story of Hanukkah. When the people had come back from Babylon and rebuilt the Temple, although it lacked some of the Sancta of the first Temple, it nevertheless was able to broadcast the message: "the universe exists on three coordinates: on Torah, on Avodah and on Gemillut Hassadim." The divine name had settled in the Temple on the broadcast was resumed.

A new culture, that of the Hellenists, spread over Asia Minor and the Fertile Crescent with the broadcast that was inimical to the one that came from Jerusalem. They invaded the Temple, desecrated it, offered swine on its altar and thereby changed the broadcast. . This proved allergic to the soul of the Jews, who under the Maccabees, took up the sword against the Hellenists, and after fierce battles in which they experienced that God helped them, they freed the Temple and purified it. Now they needed to light the sacred Menorah. In order to do this one needs specially and meticulously prepared olive oil. Finally after much searching they found one little cruse of oil still sealed with the seal of the high priest that contained just enough to light the menorah for one day.

It takes seven days to make fresh oil. They didn't want to wait until he had enough oil for the continuous  lighting. That would've meant a delay. They so craved to receive the sacred broadcast that they did not wait. When the oil in the Menorah burned for eight days until then was could be produced it was seen as a miracle.

The natural order was at one time seen by religious teachers as being superseded by the supernatural order. I like to speak of it as the miraculous order that at times becomes visible to our awareness which steadily suffuses what we call the natural order. Much of liturgy and teaching prepares us to tune into that miraculous order. Culturally, the natural order has been subverted to utilitarian purposes. The stronger that template covers the natural order the less we are in touch with the miraculous order.

The ritual and liturgy connected with Hanukkah and the candles are there to cleanse the doors of our perceptions so that we might again be attuned to the order of the miraculous. So we are taught that "these candles and their light are sacred and we have no permission to make use of them. All we must do is to just look at them".

Gazing at the candles as they are in themselves is the meditative contemplation we are urged to do on Hanukkah.

While it is important to display the menorah so that it could be seen from the street, the purpose is that even the street may receive the benefit of PirsumaNissa, to be made aware of the miraculous order.

Olam Shanah Nefesh As Eons

The Sefer Yetzirah speaks about the three dimensions of Olam, Shanah and Nefesh. Olam – world – denotes the dimension of space, shanah – year – denotes dimension of time and Nephesh – soul/spirit the note the dimension of the individual. There is a view that described each one of these three dimensions as dominating a separate eon. ( Joachim de Fiore, a Christian mystic spoke of it as the eon of the Father, which is followed by the eon of the Son and then followed by the eon of the Holy Spirit). When the dimension of space, olam, dominated we speak of the Temple in Jerusalem in a particular locale. When the Temple was destroyed in a paradigm shift happened we speak of the next eon as the one of Shanah, we no longer had the sanctuary in space but the sanctuary became one of time: Shabbat and the holy days. Here, the High Holy Days serve as the source of the broadcast for the whole year. We lived our spiritual life in the dimension of sacred time, in the illo tempore time. The paradigm shift occurred in our day after the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Moon walk and Internet. The Gaian crisis, brings us into an eon where things depend on the individual, the nefesh. At this point the receiver of the broadcast is what is in our heart. In order to fine tune this receiver it is also necessary to be in some connection and communion with individuals who are attuned to the sacred broadcast.

The rules stated in the Talmud specify that all that is necessary for each household to have one candle at the door facing the street, located as follows: “the Mezuzzah at the right and the Hanukkah candle at the left of the door and below 10 handbreadths”. The Talmud then further tells us that there are people who are more meticulous and generous in their observance the Mehadrin and that they have one candle per person of the household. Then the Talmud says that those who are meticulous of the meticulous, the Mehadrin min haMehadrin, the generous of the generous will light each one, one to eight candles following the teachings of Hillel beginning with one the first night and going up to eight, by adding each night another candle. Shammai’s school opted for beginning with eight and going down to one reducing each night by one candle. [In another area of difference of ruling Hillel says that light has many colors whereas Shammai says that there is only one color to light. It has been my custom to use two electric menorahs one with colored light bulbs following the rule of Hillel and one with only white bulbs following the rule of Shammai] on each menorah]

To return to the main theme: Hanukkah is all about PirsumaNissa and being in touch with the miraculous order. The place from which we can tune in to the miraculous order is in opening ourselves to the imaginal realm and to look at what is before us; the light of the Hanukkah candles.

At the very time when we are in the darkest days of the year lighting the candles for Hanukkah brings us back to the miraculous order. This is what we need to invoke for ourselves and for the rest of the world at this time. May we be granted the vision of the good world that is to emerge from the present dark chaos.


2 thoughts on “A Mystical Message about Chanukah from Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi

  1. Hi, Rabbi Lerner.
    I am grateful for your commentary.
    I was born, a long time ago, into a minister’s family, and my first books were bible stories.

    I am historical novelist, with a couple of novels about Mogul India that have been translated into 10 languages. I am somewhat popular, in fact, except in the English-speaking world. It takes me 10-15 years to finish a book.

    About 8 years ago I selected as my subject Judas Maccabee. I had read 1&2 Maccabees, and knew the basics of the story. I do a lot of research.

    I’m astonished about how poorly documented this period is, especially compared to other biblical periods. Particularly because, as I got deeper into it, it seemed to me that this was one of the most important periods in Western history, particularly for Jews and Christians with interest in the origins of their faiths.

    It didn’t take me long to read most of the source material, and most of the reliable histories of the period.

    About 3 years ago, I decided that I would light my own menorah, in honor of what I had come to realize was a pretty major event. It was then that I had what I might describe as a vision. Certainly it was a flash of realization.

    In that moment, I saw that I had got it wrong. The lights and oil were not the miracle. They were only the Sign of a miracle. I saw that Great Miracles occur when the Lord changes his mind: When he restores the earth to life after deciding to drown it, for example, or decides to return to the captives in Egypt after effectively disappearing for 400 years, or when He decides to lay down a Law that He will abide by, or take up residence in a permanent Tabernacle built for him. Those are the Miracles, I realized, and the tangible elements we poor humans see are only the Signs.

    It seemed to me then that all the Old Testament histories had pointed to this event. That is was a culmination and a renaissance. It seemed to me to be a Great Event.

    In the story of the Rededication, I realized, the Lord had effectively given up on His People. They had given up on Him, and He’d all but walked away from them. I saw the hopelessness of their human efforts to re-sanctify what they had profaned, by action and inaction. And I realized that lights, the “miracle” of the lights, signified a true Miracle: That the Lord had once more changed his mind, and returned to his Tabernacle, out of love and pity, and in spite of His People’s failures. He returned with love, and forgiveness. And He gave, as a sign, those little flames that did not go out. Shekinah, if you will, in a little space this time, not like Solomon’s Temple — human sized this time, and softly beautiful.

    I think the Jews realized this too. Their decision to create an 8-day holiday of Re-dedication: the first holiday not laid out in the Law, suggests to me that they understood the importance of what had occurred.

    In time, my thoughts were reinforced: that this was the only holiday meant to be celebrated in public, in fact advertised to the public by lighting lights, when all the others were meant for the home only or the Temple.

    I don’t agree with those who claim that Hanukkah was meant to commemorate a victory in battle. The Jews had had other, bigger victories without this kind of celebration. I think they meant primarily to share the Fact of the Lord’s mercy with anyone who would pay attention.

    Since it was at the time practically impossible to “convert” to Judaism, this desire was not evangelism. Today’s Christians “share” Easter and Christmas, but the underlying reason behind sharing with non-believers, it seems to me, is evangelical. The celebration of Hanukkah, by contrast, is basically a selfless act, insofar as it was meant to share good news with all, Jews and gentiles alike.

    I very much disagree with the modern interpretation that Hanukkah is a “minor” holiday. It was intended to be major, both in concept (Pirsuma Nissa) and in duration. It’s clear from Josephus, from the Talmuds (and to a lesser extent, due to its inclusion as part of the Gospel of John), that it was a big deal for many years.

    It’s my opinion that during the many times of persecution, Jews may have been reluctant to be quite so visible about Hanukkah, and that they rationalized this reluctance. Also, the Hanukkah story is not in the Jewish canon, and in my limited experience, I know of only one Jew (and no rabbis) who have ever read Maccabees 1&2. I end up telling rabbis the history, and their jaws drop open.

    It’s my guess that an increasing observance of Hanukkah re-emerged in the 19th century, as “modern” Judaism took root, and Jews became somewhat more tolerated in European society — and just as synagogues began to be built to resemble Christian churches, etc., the celebration was promoted as some sort of parallel winter festival, akin to Christmas, which itself became increasingly a big deal at about this time as well. Christmas used to be a blip in the Christian calendar, no more observed than Whitsunday, until the Victorians made a bigger fuss about it. Hanukkah, to many Christians, seems like a Christmas wannabe, and I think the opinion has spread among the Jews as well — it’s not helped with emphasis on gift-giving during the 8 nights.

    Too bad for both faiths.

    The events that led up to the Re-dedication are as spectacular a story as can be found in history. The spiritual aspects of the story are deeply human and profound.

    The story has huge relevance to Christians as well as Jews. The Hasmoneans set the social and political landscape that existed during Jesus’s time, and many of his teachings have specific relevance to increased importance of Pharisee Theology. Yet I haven’t met a single pastor who could tell me who the Pharisees were, or why they were important in Jesus’s time, let alone how they set in motion much of what has become Post-second-temple Judaism.

    In all, I can’t believe nobody knows this stuff, at least as well as the Christmas story or Exodus, for example.

    I’m a big fan of non-Jews celebrating Hanukkah, like I do, but I’m afraid this desire could devolve into churches sort of folding it in with the Advent candles, etc. Which would be a real shame.

    Anyway: to sum up — Hanukkah is a big deal, and an important holiday, with importance to Christians as well as Jews.

    Thanks for taking the time to think about both holidays, and their spiritual meaning. I hope, as I think you do, that a recognition of the spiritual importance of Hanukkah will lead others to re-dedicate themselves in love and faith to the Lord.

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