Miriam’s Cup: Training Our Eyes to See Hidden Light

We’re in the time of the year when we wake up and it’s dark and cold out, and it’s dark again by 4:30 in the afternoon. This year, winter during the Covid pandemic is bringing news of yet another variant, questions about the effectiveness of the vaccine and more waves of uncertainty. For many of us, these short spans of daylight and long hours of darkness are times when our hearts more readily contract with loneliness and languishing, and our minds more frequently become absorbed with fears, worries and a general quality of bleakness.

What a gift to have Chanukah at exactly this time of year! In particular, what a valuable opportunity to have a holiday that trains our eyes to see hidden light, a practice to carry with us into the winter months ahead.

Of all the Jewish holydays, Chanukah doesn’t call on us to do very much. There’s no big Seder to plan and prepare for. No Sukkah to build. The days of Chanukah are ordinary workdays rather than yom tov, days of sacred pause and practice. While we do add the joyous prayersongs of Hallel to shacharit (the morning service), the essential act of Chanukah is to light the candles and look at them. That’s it. There is even a prohibition against using the light of the Chanukah candles for any functional purpose. Just place your chanukiyah in your window, light the candles and look at them.

But the light of the Chanukah candles is no ordinary light and the practice of looking at them, and truly seeing them, is no ordinary practice. According to the 12th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Elazar of Worms, the thirty-six candles we light over the course of the eight nights of Chanukah parallel the thirty-six hours for which the original, primordial light of Creation shone, before it was hidden away.

What is Rabbi Elazar talking about?! Well, perplexed by the Torah’s description of God creating the sun, moon and stars on the fourth day of creation, but creating light on the first day, the Talmud (Chagiga 12a) interprets the light of the first day as an entirely different kind of light. It was a light that is not contained in the heavenly bodies. It is the light that was separated out of primordial, watery chaos and darkness hovering over the deep. This is the light of illumination itself, of enlightenment. It enabled Adam and Eve to see from one end of the earth to the other. And, the Talmud teaches, to save it from being abused by the sinful generation of Flood, this light was hidden away (and called Or Haganuz – the hidden Light), waiting to be seen and revealed by the righteous who learn how to look for it and learn to see the world through its radiance.  

Rabbi Elazar of Worms teaches that each Chanukah candle draws from the Or Haganuz, from this hidden light of creation and illumination, penetrating the darkness and chaos with great light. It takes practice to see what is not obvious, to notice what is hidden beneath the surface of things. It takes practice to allow what we see with our eyes to fill our awareness and touch our hearts. Can you gaze at your Chanukah candles, burning and flickering against the dark window and dark night, and imagine it or sense it as part of that potent, creative, original illumination? Can you gaze at the flames until their light illuminates within you like a mirror, like one candle lighting another, enlightening your heart and saturating your awareness? Through this subtle practice of lighting and looking, may we train our eyes and our awareness to perceive light and to shine light wherever it is obscured or hidden.

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