Hanukkah: A Light Meditation

Looking into the flame.

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Reprinted with permission from Iyyun, an institute for the exploration of the deeper dimensions of Torah.

Meditating on the flame of the menorah is integral to the Hanukkah lights. Unlike the Shabbat candles, for example, which are kindled to add kavod (honor) to the ensuing day or for the purpose of oneg (pleasure) so that we eat in light and do not stumble in darkness, the flames of the menorah are lit for no personal use whatsoever, rather simply, as the Rambam writes, "to manifest and reveal the miracle" or in the words of the prayer following the lighting: "These lights are holy. Permission is not granted to use them, merely to look at them." Since looking is all that can be done, Hasidic teachers and Kabbalistic masters have suggested we do so. Once we light the flames we should sit gently next to the lights and look, notice and listen to them.
hanukkah candles
What is their story? And what are they telling us? Most clearly they are telling us is to simply quiet down. Often we become so entangled in the noise and onrush of day-to-day life that we fail to truly notice that which is important. Almost habitually we go around stressing about the future or violently regretting the past, that we neglect to focus on the present. The mind tends to settle in all directions of time except the moment. The gentle hissing sound of the flame begs us to slow down, relax, become more introspective, reflective, and take notice.

So we sit there quietly and listen, become attentive and introspect. In due time, as the light fills our imagination we become fully aware and realize that there is nothing fundamentally outside and besides the Ultimate Light.

What Do We See?

Looking at the flames, what do we see? Noticeably there are three basic elements to the fire; the flame, the wick and the oil or wax. Says the Zohar; the body is similar to the wick, the flame itself is analogous to the divine presence that rests above the head, and the oil that fuses the two together, allowing the flame to join and remain connected with the wick is our ma'asim tovim-good and illuminating deeds. (3:187a)

"The wise man's eyes are in his head" (Kohelet. 2:14.). This means, says the Zohar, that the wise are continuously aware of the divine presence above their heads. More importantly, their awareness informs their actions and insures good deeds and proper comportment. Taking notice of the flames inspires us all to do the same.

In truth we are like a flame. The totality of who we are is reflected within the flame. The spiritual elements of self, the fire reaches upward, the physical body which gravitates downward is the wick, and our good deeds allows for a full integration among all aspects of self, body and soul.

The flame is who we are. Appropriately, the Hebrew word nefesh (spirit), comprised of the three letters, nun, pei, shin, is an acronym for ner (flame), pesilah (wick) and shemen (oil).

Penetrating a bit deeper we begin to notice the fire itself and become aware of the different shades of color within the flame. Essentially, there is the dark, intense blue light on the one hand, and on the other extreme a white luminous, almost transparent light.

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Rabbi DovBer Pinson

Rabbi DovBer Pinson is the Rosh Yeshiva of the IYYUN Yeshiva, a Yeshiva for adults. He is also the founder of the IYYUN Center, a center for Jewish enrichment in Brooklyn, New York, and and is the author of more than ten books on Kabbalah and spirituality.