Eight Days of Internal Light: Commentary on Parashat MiKetz and Chanukkah 5783
By Rabbi Dr. Rivkah Glick, Hebrew Seminary alum, ordained 2019; Educator, Orot

I have a coat of many colors I wear this time of year. Why? It reminds me of the Joseph story. This week’s parashah, MiKetz, is part of the famous long story about Joseph and his brothers—a tale that has inspired plays, movies, and even great literary works (e.g., Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers). Our parashah is full of dreams and forgetting, but I first want to share something about one of Joseph’s brothers, Judah, whose Hebrew name has the idea of “gratitude” in its root. The Hebrew word for “Jew” comes from Judah’s name and also shares a root with hoda’ah (הוֹדָאָה, “thanking”). Gratitude is what Leah expressed upon the birth of her son Judah: “Let me gratefully praise G-d” (“אוֹדֶ֣ה אֶת־יְהֹוָ֔ה,” odeh et Adonai in Genesis 29:35). Judah is a key player in the Joseph story. We first see Judah as a scoundrel, willing to put his brother Joseph into a pit and sell him off and then tell his father Jacob that Joseph has died (Genesis 37:26–35). We next read a strange story in Genesis 38 about how Judah does not honor his daughter-in-law Tamar by giving her his third son as husband, under Jewish law, called levirate marriage, because his first two sons had died when with her. She secretly plays the harlot, he unknowingly impregnates her, and when discovered, he realizes that she is the righteous one. This is the beginning of a change in Judah’s consciousness. In Genesis 44, Joseph, now Prince of Egypt, who has not yet revealed himself to his brothers, is about to imprison the youngest beloved brother, Benjamin, and put him into a jail. It is Judah who bravely steps forward, begs for mercy, and offers himself instead. At this point Joseph reveals himself, and the brothers are reunited. But what we see is that Judah, when faced with a similar situation (an ousted brother) now acts differently; he acts morally, righteously, and in essence performs teshuvah (תְּשׁוּבָה, “repentance”). Gratitude and teshuvah must accompany one another as we examine Chanukkah.

Some think of Chanukkah as a “minor” holiday, maybe celebrated to balance against another big December holiday. We may know about the war the Jews won against the Syrian-Greeks, how we rededicated the temple, and that the oil for the menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem was only enough for one day but lasted eight days. A miracle! That’s what the rabbis of old wanted to stress: the miracle of the light, not the fight. It’s all in the Book of Maccabees, but Maccabees is not in the Hebrew Bible. The Books of Maccabees are in the Christian Apocrypha.

If not in Torah, where in our Jewish tradition can we find a discussion about Chanukkah? It’s in the Babylonian Talmud, of course, Shabbat 21a–b, in a discussion about candles. The Talmud here teaches at least two important lessons relevant to us Jews today. The first lesson emerges from a debate by the strict school of Beit Shammai and the humbler, more inclusive school of Beit Hillel. The two schools sought to answer the question of how many candles we light each night of Chanukkah. Beit Shammai argued that, just as the number of cows sacrificed on Sukkot progressively grew smaller each day of the holiday, the number of candles we light on Chanukkah should become fewer each night, beginning with eight candles and ending with one. Beit Hillel taught (sans precedent) that we begin with one candle, and we increase the number of candles lit each night (the common practice today). Because Chanukkah is about increasing light in the world, we increase holiness in the world; in the Talmud’s words, “מעלין בקדש ואין מורידין” (ma’alin bakodesh, ve’ein moridin, “we increase holiness and do not decrease”).

Chanukkah comes at the darkest time of the year, trying to bring light into darkness. Several festivals in other faiths also try to dispel the darkness: the Hindu Indian holiday Diwali; the Christian holidays of Christmas and Advent; the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa; the Muslim birthday of Muhammad; and Bodhi Day, celebrating the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. The prophet Isaiah says that our job as Jews is to be “as a light unto nations” (Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6), bringing the moral and ethical teachings of Torah, kindness, compassion, generosity, justice to the world. Light is holiness. Psalms 27:1 reads, “The Lord is my light” (“יהוה אוֹרִי,” Adonai ori), and Proverbs 20:27 teaches, “The light of the Lord is the soul of humanity.” The candle of G-d is our soul. Imagine: We are the candles standing in G-d’s menorah, bringing light unto the world. The menorah is also a tree of light rooted in the earth reaching up, the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.

A second teaching from the Babylonian Talmud about Chanukkah refers to the types of candles and oils used on Chanukkah versus Shabbat, and how they are used. Shabbat is about separation and distinction. We stop the work we do all week and rest. Abraham Joshua Heschel describes Shabbat as “a palace in time” (The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, Part One, Chapter II). Shabbat is a taste of the time of our future redemption, when everything is perfect and nothing needs to be fixed or created. Special preparations are required, and special candles designated just for Shabbat ignite this sacred day. The light of Shabbat candles can be utilitarian though; they can benefit us and help us see.

In contrast, any oil or candles may be used for the Chanukkah menorah, and not much preparation is necessary. And once you light them, the mitzvah of Chanukkah is to gaze upon them—their beauty, their holiness, their light—and not to use them for anything else.

The Chasidic masters describe Chanukkah’s candles as a metaphor for us, for our lives, which may reflect the variety of candles that suit the holiday: candles and lives that are broken, common, rich, pure, or impure. Whether we are prepared or not ready to be holy—to be righteous, kind and compassionate—we can come and participate and be included in the mitzvah. We can all participate in bringing holiness into the world—light into the darkness. And like Joseph and Jacob, we may go up and down in our lives, but the vector is about increasing holiness in the world.

The Chasidic masters believed it is not enough just to perform a mitzvah and follow the law mindlessly. Rather, they were concerned with our internal experience, our consciousness being aware that we are in the Divine Presence when we participate in a mitzvah. We may call this intentionality kavvanah (כַּוָּנָה), a term that also implies “direction” or “aiming,” and many of us call this mindfulness. When addressing lighting candles on Chanukkah, the S’fat Emet (1847–1905) taught that, just as we bring light into the darkness of the physical world as we gaze at the candle, we should deeply “look” for a long time—5 minutes, perhaps 30 minutes—and watch the flame constantly moving and changing, like our lives. The S’fat Emet urges us that, as we gaze and look deeply, it is important to see also what is not visible to the eye. We need to look deep inside ourselves and shed light on our own dark spaces, our shortcomings, our resentments, our neediness, our excessive wanting or grasping for materialism, our turning away from those who are in need, our unholy thoughts. As we shed light on these internal dark spaces we can do teshuvah: transform, change, return. The S’fat Emet says that, within each of us is an inner point, an inner spark, of goodness, of light, and we can infuse this point into the entire soul. Whereas darkness in the mind may be manifest by forgetting—light, by contrast, leads to seeing the secret, the hidden, and bringing it forth. We need to think about how we see, for this determines how we relate to one another. As we shed light on our own dark internal spaces, in our lives, in our hearts, we can try to bring more light into ourselves: more lovingkindness, generosity, joy and gratitude into our own hearts, into our own consciousness. As we open our hearts, we can bring these G-d-like attributes into the world and truly become “a light unto nations.”

I have learned that Chanukkah is really a deep holiday of gratitude and teshuvah. On each of the eight days, we recite the complete Hallel, songs of praise and thankfulness. And, in Kabbalah, each of the eight days of Chanukkah are associated with a particular sefirah, a G-d-like attribute (as drawn in the figure below) as Kabbalah instructs us.

Each sefirah represents an attribute of G-d superimposed on human beings. We are a microcosm of G-d in that we are made in G-d’s image. These sefirot, include wisdom, lovingkindness, truth, balance, beauty, glory, compassion. On each day of Chanukkah we can focus on one of these attributes, and try to emulate it that day, to practice it in our own lives, and repair the brokenness. In this way, we repair ourselves, and we repair the world. Chanukkah is not an isolated minor holiday in December, but rather a continuation of the high holidays, our last chance to get in our high holiday teshuvah, to renew the vows made on Yom Kippur, about improving our life this year: physically, intellectually, spiritually, with ourselves and others, with chesed, generosity and compassion. It’s like the new year resolutions we make. Our work is to learn where we are missing the mark, our brokenness; to gather the sparks; and to make the repair, the tikkun, in ourselves and the world. Right heart to right action.

May we be blessed with the light of chesed (חֶסֶד, lovingkindness) and compassion in our lives. May we be blessed with eight days of internal light and repair, fixing the chaos in our lives, illuminating the dark days of winter, making a true tikkun olam, elevating the divine sparks in each of us, and increasing the light in our lives and the world.