Thank you to Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels for inspiring this teaching.
My home office is a mess – piles of papers, notes, scattered books that I’ve started to read or that I’ve pulled off the shelf for teaching, letters of request for donations and a smattering of articles I mean to get to. This time of year, I make it part of my practice to do a serious cleansing of the clutter. The task is to prioritize some of the reading, give away or recycle what I no longer need, file what I want to keep and restore order and beauty to the space. This organizing and clean up is not a goal in and of itself, but it is the essential prior work I need to do so that so the space is conducive to the thinking, writing, learning, praying and meditating that I am committed to engage in there. All of those activities, and the wellsprings of spiritual, creative and intellectual life they then enable, are my real aims.
Whenever we set goals and deepen our intentions, there is preparation to do to create conducive conditions so that our intentions can unfold toward being realized. You can’t develop healthier eating habits if the cupboard is filled with cookies, chips and pretzels and if you haven’t replaced them with healthy, alternate foods. If you want to bring greater intentionality and values-based thinking to your charitable giving, you can’t wait until Dec. 30th to make decisions about year-end giving and merely respond to the charity requests that happen to arrive to your home or inbox. Dedication requires preparation.
This is Chanukah. Chanukah literally means dedication. The story of Chanukah centers around the Maccabee rebellion against Antiochus Epiphanes, fighting for freedom against his repressive laws prohibiting Jewish practice and political independence. The highpoint of the rebellion occurred when the Maccabees recaptured the Temple from the Greeks (and the Hellenizing Jews) in 164 BCE and cleansed it of idols. The cleansing was an essential part of a more holistic restorative process, preparing the Temple itself for Jewish use again as well as being the essential janitorial, political and spiritual work of cleansing and preparation that then enabled the Maccabees to rededicate and renew Jewish life in Jerusalem as a whole – actualizing the space for Jewish communal life, spiritual devotion and freedom.
Explaining that the word chanukah – dedication, and chinuch – education, come from the same root, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira (1889-1943) taught:
“In a house or vessel, chinuch refers to the preparation that has made a house or vessel suitable for a certain task or usage. The word chinuch is a special word that implies the realization of the already inherent capacity of a person or object, the actualization of a potential. When referring to the education of children, therefore, chinuch mean stimulating the growth and development of what each child is suited for by his very nature. This quality or potential may be found in him only in very small measure, in total hiddenness; the task of the educator is to uncover it.”
Alongside the historical freedom and dedication that Chanukah celebrates, we are invited into a deeply personal process of cleansing, dedication and the discovery of new potential that has been dormant within.
First, we aim to pay attention and discern what spark, what small measure or hint of potential is already in us but needs to be uncovered, nurtured and amplified? What important values do we wish to dedicate ourselves to and activate in our lives? Can we imagine who we might become if we were truly free – free from habits, discouragement and fears?
Next, we prepare the conditions for this potential to become real. We seek to identify the obstacles and cleanse the yaven, the muck and mire (a play on the word yavan, Greek, referring to the Greek Empire of Antiochus), removing or transforming what is at odds with our purpose. In the physical world, this may be my office clutter or tempting junk food in cupboard. In the realm of our inner lives, the yaven might be the limiting beliefs we cling to about ourselves. Perhaps it is painful emotions – shame, loneliness, powerlessness, etc. that absorb our energy and occupy our attention. In the fertile darkness of this season, how can we create spaciousness around these obstacles so there is room for something else.
And third, we light a new spark of dedication. The Talmud teaches that “hadlkah osah mitzvah” – it is the lighting that fulfills the mitzvah”. The preparations are essential, but the whole point of the preparations is brave new action, brave new being – setting something new aflame and stoking the hidden, the potential, to burn brightly and visibly.