Menorah Meditations: Hanukkah 5781

Aryeh Kaplan’s classic book, Jewish Meditation presents many techniques for focusing one’s attention in order to perceive dimensions of reality that are otherwise hidden. I love his discussion of the letters shin and mem. The sound we make with sin/shin is a hissing noise, a chaotic cacophony. In contrast, the mem, Kaplan writes, “is pure harmonic sound, the epitome of order and regularity.” He continues, “the shin denotes a hot, chaotic state of consciousness (fire=aish), while the mem denotes a cool, harmonic state (water=mayim).” The idea is to move from a normal unfocused state of consciousness, of shin, to a focused stated of mem, which is associated with prophecy (as in the story of Elijah and the kol demmama of prophecy). The two letters combine to form the words sheim (name) and sham (there) which are associated with the “transition from the chaos of the general to the harmony of the particular.” (130) I might add that the splintered shape of the shin (ש) and the round shape of the final mem (ם) further indicate their respective associations with chaos and harmony.

You can practice meditating on these letters with a simple exercise. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Exhale with the sound of shin, inhale, and then exhale with mem. You can visualize these letters if you like. You may also add the ayin to complete the word shema. As Kaplan notes, ayin is valued in numerology as 70, a number associated with the creation. Saying the shema in a meditative state, we can share in the creative transition from chaos to cosmos.

Meditation is any activity designed to focus attention, to allow us to transition from confusion to insight. Special days like Shabbat and Hanukkah help focus the mind so that deeper harmonies can be heard in our lives, so that we can live with purpose and joy. This may be accomplished by meditating on the flames of Shabbat and Hanukkah lamps.

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Kaplan discusses the meditation technique of focusing on a flame, ideally of an oil lamp which burns white and clear  (69-71). This practice is hinted at in mystical works such as Sefer Yetzira and Tikkunei HaZohar. As one gazes at the flame, the goal is to notice different colors—white, yellow, and red—but also black and blue. These last two colors may not be perceived in the flame itself, but in the space surrounding it. Looking at the light one can also perceive the darkness that surrounds it, and then perhaps a transitional aura of blue, which is associated with great prophetic states (like at Sinai, and by Ezekiel, who experienced the divine throne as blue). I am relating Rabbi Kaplan’s instructions, not my own experience.

It seems to me that when we light the menorah and gaze at it, we have the opportunity to concentrate our mind on the creative process that brings the world into existence. We can focus on both the light and the darkness, on presence and absence, on letters and parchment. Indeed, the halakhah stipulates that we may not use the light for any other purpose, but only to look at it (אלא לראותן בלבד).

Rebbe Nahman of Breslov connects the lamp of Hanukkah to the second line of the priestly blessing. God’s face will shine on you and give you love יאר ה’ פניו אליך ויחנך. That final word includes the word Hanukkah, which refers to preparing and educating. But to prepare someone, to teach them, is to show them love. And in this case, God shows us love through the revelation of the divine presence.

But how can we show love to others? Clearly the first step is to show them our face and gaze upon theirs. Rebbe Nahman goes further, taking for example Moses. What was remarkable about Moses was his ability to view the sorrows of his people, even when he could easily have avoided and ignored the anguish all around. He chose to engage, to seek out the faces of people in sorrow, and this act of love is what prepared him to be our greatest teacher. Rebbe Nahman finds a hint of this in the month name Kislev, whose letters match the phrase in Exodus 3:4, “God saw that he turned to look” (וַיַּרְא יְיָ כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת).

As we gaze at the lights of Hanukkah this week, let us focus our attention on that which is visible, and that which is hidden. We can meditate on the creative process by which God creates the world, and we are called to partner through our own focus and organization. And then let us take the same attention and turn it to the other lights in our lives—the faces of the people we encounter. Let us look to see not only the confidence that they project, but also to sense their hidden sorrows. When we look at others with love, then we can cause their faces to shine, to add light and holiness, to share in the miracle of renewal. Hag urim sameah and Shabbat shalom.

ליקוטי מוהר”ן תנינא ז:א

וְזֶה בְּחִינַת (תהילים ק״ד:ט״ו): לְהַצְהִיל פָּנִים מִשָּׁמֶן, וְלֶחֶם לְבַב אֱנוֹשׁ יִסְעָד, הַיְנוּ שֶׁבְּתוֹךְ הָאֲכִילָה מִתְגַּלֶּה הֶאָרַת הַמַּקִּיפִים שֶׁהוּא בְּחִינַת אוֹר הַפָּנִים, בְּחִינַת: לְהַצְהִיל פָּנִים מִשָּׁמֶן וְלֶחֶם וְכוּ’. וְעַל־כֵּן מִצְוַת חֲנֻכָּה בְּשֶׁמֶן, כִּי חֲנֻכָּה הוּא בְּחִינַת חֲנֻכַּת־הַבַּיִת, שֶׁעַל־יְדֵי־זֶה נִמְשָׁךְ פַּרְנָסָה, וְנִתְגַּלֶּה אוֹר הַפָּנִים, שֶׁזֶּה בְּחִינוֹת לֶחֶם הַפָּנִים, בְּחִינוֹת: לְהַצְהִיל פָּנִים מִשָּׁמֶן וְלֶחֶם וְכוּ’, כַּנַּ”ל.

וְזֶה בְּחִינוֹת (במדבר ו׳:כ״ה): יָאֵר ה’ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ. וִיחֻנֶּךָּ – זֶה בְּחִינוֹת חֲנֻכָּה, שֶׁעַל־יָדוֹ נִתְגַּלֶּה אוֹר הַפָּנִים, בְּחִינַת: יָאֵר ה’ פָּנָיו וְכוּ’ כַּנַּ”ל.

וּמֹשֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ זָכָה לְסוֹד חֲנֻכָּה, עַל־יְדֵי שֶׁמָּסַר נַפְשׁוֹ בִּשְׁבִיל יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנָתַן לִבּוֹ עֲלֵיהֶם לְהִסְתַּכֵּל בְּצָרָתָם, כִּי הוּא הָיָה רַחֲמָן וּמַנְהִיג אֲמִתִּי כַּנַּ”ל. וְעִקָּר צָרַת יִשְׂרָאֵל הוּא הַמַּשָּׂא שֶׁל עֲווֹנוֹת, חַס וְשָׁלוֹם, כַּנַּ”ל, וְעַל־כֵּן בִּקֵּשׁ עֲלֵיהֶם סְלַח נָא כַּנַּ”ל, וְעַל־יְדֵי־זֶה נַעֲשֶׂה בְּחִינַת חֲנֻכָּה, בְּחִינַת חֲנֻכַּת־הַבַּיִת, שֶׁבְּזֶה תָּלוּי תִּקּוּן כָּל הַבְּחִינוֹת הַנַּ”ל, כַּנַּ”ל.

וְזֶהוּ חֲנוּכָּה – חָנוּ־כ”ה, הַיְנוּ כ”ה בְּכִסְלֵו. כִּסְלֵיו הוּא אוֹתִיּוֹת: וַיַּרְא יְיָ כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת (שמות ג׳:ד׳) כִּי מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ נָתַן לִבּוֹ לְהִסְתַּכֵּל בְּצָרָתָן שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל. וְזֶהוּ: כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת – לְשׁוֹן סָר וְזָעֵף (מלכים־א כ). וְעִקָּר צָרָתָן הוּא הַמַּשָּׂא שֶׁל עֲווֹנוֹת, חַס וְשָׁלוֹם, כַּנַּ”ל.