Light that Fights Dark
In 2014, I had the immense privilege of visiting to the central synagogue for Belz Chasidim in Jerusalem during Chanukah. The video below is from that night.
One of the deeply moving observations I had that night was watching the Grand Rabbi, Yissoscher Dov Rokeach, make the blessings over the Chanukah candles and then stare at them meditatively for the next 30 or so minutes while the hall was filled with beautiful singing.
I’d known of this custom before but had never seen it live and never with such intent. It was as if he was willing something to be with his gaze. That memory popped into my head this year as I was doing some learning about Chanukah.
As you might imagine, there are lengthy debates in the halakhic literature about intricacies relating to when, how, and where to light the chanukkiyah. One of those has to do with how high it can be. While in theory, it can be placed as high as 30 feet, the ideal preference is that it remain below 31 inches from the ground.
The main rationale given is built around the whole notion of why we light in the first place, pirsumei nisa, the publicizing of the Chanukah miracle. If the lights are higher than that, people might think the candles are more for illumination purposes than anything else. Keeping it lower reminds people that these lights serve the purpose of making known the great miracle of the holiday itself.
Commenting on the spiritual meaning behind this ruling, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovskynotes that that there are three types of darkness that exists in the world: mild, full, and tangible darkness that one can actually feel. Think back to the plague of darkness in Egypt for the final of those. We are told it was so thick it was tangible. That last one is felt particularly close to a human being. It's not "up in the sky," but rather it hovers around us in all manners.
On that heavy darkness, the Netivot Sholom writes
…even within it, there dwells a divine light. That's why we have to light the menorah below that height limit. The very objective of the menorah is to bring light within that darkness,
In other words, the darkness that exists most strongly around us is can only be expelled by the light of the menorah. That’s why in an ideal setting, the chanukkiyah lights should be low, near us humans. In addition to fulfilling the legal requirements of watching the flames, I wonder if this was driving the Rebbe from Belz as well.
As we came out of the warmth and (hopefully) enjoyable time with family over Thanksgiving, we were hit with the news of ANOTHER variant. Coupled with the impending solstice, recent disappointments in the halls of justice, and general winter malaise, there is a darkness that feels more pervasive. Each person feels this uniquely.
It could be a personal struggle that you’re facing, a physical or emotional one, or even something more globally. That is the challenge and potential beauty of this time of year. The darkness is both universal and deeply personal in one fell swoop.
Maybe this then is one of those secrets of Chanukah that we uncover each year. There is something to those lights. We’re not supposed to use them in a traditional sense. What if we can use them in a more spiritual sense? When you light next, see if you can take just a few minutes to stare at the flames. Notice their intricacies. Feel their flickering. Within that meditation, whether it’s for two minutes or twenty minutes, see if you can channel some of that light to repel whatever darkness it is that you are feeling.
Chag Urim Sameach, Happy Chanukah, and Shabbat Shalom
Known as the Netivot Sholom, the most recent Grand Rabbi of the Slonim Chasidim, 1911-2000.
Maamarei Chanukah-Page 9, Paragraph 3-5761