Our spiritual flashlight
By: Rabbi Dovid Samuels
You took tears of sorrow and turned them into tears of gratitude
Finally, our homes will be filled with dancing flames and the veil of darkness will have been completely peeled back
A story is told that the great Tzaddik Rabbi Meir of Premishlan was once being hosted for a Shabbos meal at the house of one of his followers. During the meal, Rabbi Meir said to his host, “This challah has the taste of the Garden of Eden! Please, tell me who baked it.” So the man asked his wife but she replied that she did not bake the challahs. Instead, she got the help of a young orphan girl to help her bake for Shabbos. This girl was called into the room and the Rebbe asked her what she was doing while she was baking the bread for the meal. The girl replied that while she was baking the challahs, she was remembering how her mother also used to bake challahs for Shabbos while she was still alive, and the memory caused her to cry. “What else?” the Rebbe persisted. “When I was recalling how my mother braided her challahs, I also started to remember how she would always use that time to thank Hashem for all of the blessings in her life. As I remembered that, I decided to also use the time to thank Hashem for all of the good things in my life.” The Rebbe, with his face beaming, said: “You took tears of sorrow and turned them into tears of gratitude. That is what gave your challahs the taste of Gan Eden!”
Since Chanukah is referred to in our prayers as a time of gratitude and praise, let’s examine this story in the context of the festival.
Our Sages teach us that the primary reason for establishing Chanukah as a festival in the first place was to provide the Jewish people with a platform for praising and thanking Hashem. So, the degree to which we are able to connect with the spiritual power that is activated during the days of Chanukah will be relative to the degree we engage in praising and thanking Hashem.
One of the ways we express our thanks is by reciting Hallel every day of Chanukah. The Psalms speak of appreciation for the miracles that Hashem has performed for us since the inception of the Jewish people. We also specifically mention the great miracles Hashem did for us in our spiritual and physical battle against the Greeks at the time of the Chanukah miracle. But together with the verbal expressions of gratitude – the lip service – we could all use a bit of help truthfully feeling thankful. A task easier said than done; or rather: easier said than felt.
But besides for the verbal gratitude, we are also taught that lighting the Menorah is another way of expressing thanks. Understood simply, our mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah lights is a physical display of appreciation for Hashem’s kindnesses towards us. But, perhaps this mitzvah is not merely a display of thanks, but rather a tool to really experience the feelings of thankfulness. But how?
Generally speaking, a person doesn’t need to find things to be thankful for. The miracles in our lives are manifold. Instead, the real challenge is remaining focused on them, and not allowing those gifts in our lives to be covered over or blackened out by other experiences and worries. In a power outage, we can’t see the door handle, the knives and forks, the dining room table. We know they are there; they have just been covered in a darkness. When the lights come back on, we don’t rediscover our cutlery and furniture; we simply return to our normal way of life. Everything was there, just now we can see them.
Similarly, Judaism is all about recognising that the real reality is the intimately close relationship we have with Hashem. The mitzvos are ways of connecting to that reality; Shabbos and the festivals are times when that realisation is heightened and more accessible; learning Torah praying are both intellectual and emotional experiences of love and closeness with Hashem. The default setting of a Jew is: constant awareness and appreciation of the goodness that comes with the personal love that Hashem has for every one of us. The problem is that we very often experience ‘power outages’. The miracles don’t cease, nor does the closeness fade; but the awareness of everything becomes murky – a spiritual blackout – until we bump into the kitchen table and become frustrated by those very same things that were meant to be a source of great joy and pleasure for us. What do we all do to prepare for the (inevitable) blackout? At the very least, buy an emergency light!
Two thousand years ago, an event happened that allowed us to survive in darkness. Just before the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdash which sent us into a long and painful exile, Hashem gave us the ability to create an enduring light. The seas didn’t split, the skies didn’t become filled with a swarm of locusts; we didn’t need that anymore. We needed to know that, with Hashem’s help, we could use our own abilities to push away the darkness which surrounds us and remain conscious of the real reality behind the concealment; to maintain awareness of our relationship with our Creator and, perhaps, simply to remain thankful.
If we look at the mitzvah of the Chanukah lights, we will see that they are sending us a rather clear message. Initially, the mitzvah was to place the lights on the outside of our homes, low down and close to the ground, in the evening when it was becoming dark outside. This shows us that those ‘outside in the darkness’ – those who were spiritually and emotionally low – needed help illuminating their lives, to be able to see in the blackout. So we shone our brightness outwards, as a beacon in the night. But as it became more dangerous for Jews, the lights were brought inside the home. This means that as it became spiritually darker outside, we needed more help ourselves to ‘see the light’, even inside our own homes which were supposed to be protected from the outside threats.
But as we draw closer to the final stage of our exile, we are confronting an even more invasive enemy. It is no longer merely an outside threat, nor is it an invasion into our homes. We now also have to battle against the darkness which has found a place in our own hearts. Not only will we struggle to see through the blackness, we will perhaps even be led to believe that a blackout is the new normal, and that no generator or emergency lights will change it. In more real terms: pain and sadness will be reality, and believing in anything different would be foolish.
But Hashem refused to let us become blind to the real reality. While we might be witness to harsh judgments from heaven, every Jewish soul knows that, fundamentally, everything that comes from Hashem is ultimately good. Any functional relationship requires both parties to know one another. So too our relationship with Hashem will depend entirely on us knowing and believing that He is purely good and does goodness. So He gave us a light in the darkness, a torch in the blackout, a way of eliminating the threat on the outside, in our houses, and in our very own hearts. He gave us a tool to be able to turn tears of sadness into tears of gratitude. And if we are able to see just one small ray of light in the darkness, the next time we will be able to see two flames, and then three, and finally our homes will be filled with dancing flames and the veil of darkness will have been completely peeled back.
The late Rebbe of Slonim, hy”d, was offered an opportunity to get a passport to attempt to save his life during the holocaust. In order to get the passport, he needed to have his photograph taken. The photographer led the Rebbe into a dark room, with all the windows blacked out, and even hid himself under a black cloth. With the press of a button on the large machine standing in front of the Rebbe, a flash illuminated the room, and the image of the Rebbe was imprinted on the photograph paper. The Rebbe said to his escort, “Remember: a person can be in a pitch-black room, and even though no one can see him, he can still make an impression!”
Our Chanukah lights are a reminder that even in pitch blackness, that little bit of light can make a big impression. They are a reinforcement of that which we all naturally know and believe, we just may have become distracted from the truth: that Hashem loves His people, and everything He does is to heal us and guide us towards a deeper and more real relationship with Him. Those lights are the message we need to internalise so that our Hallel the next morning is a song of praise from deep within our hearts, and a generator against any future blackout. Then our gratitude will dispel any sadness, and we too will be able to experience the taste of Gan Eden.