Today is the last day of Chanukah, the eight-day holiday during which we which celebrates the transformative power light. The victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks was a triumph of light over darkness. But it was just the first victory. Every day, we must wage the fight for light over darkness.
As we conclude the festival of lights, today I want to explore what Chanukah can teach us about the path to enlightenment.
How Darkness Sets In
To understand the path to enlightenment, we must first appreciate how we end up in darkness.
Subtle Shifts Over Time
The Greeks sought to destroy Judaism and Jewish values, not through a decree kill the Jews, but rather through a process of policies that outlawed various Jewish practices and rituals. It was a gradual onset of spiritual darkness, small and subtle shifts that were barely perceptible until they resulted in assimilation.
It’s a mirror of what happens in nature at this time of year. The gradual shortening of daylight hours is hardly noticeable from day to day, until suddenly you look up at 4 pm and it feels like midnight.
The darkness in our lives follows the same pattern. On a cultural level, we can see this play out in laws that gradually suppress voters’ rights, in redistricting changes that shift the balance of power, in the passing of various laws that have chipped away at established legal protections, and in the gradual expansion of privacy loopholes that leave our data exposed (among other places).
In our personal lives, rarely do we have a cataclysmic event that drastically shifts our direction. Rather, we experience subtle shifts in our direction that, left unchecked, over time direct us to new destinations.
As Without, So Too Within
We often fall into the illusion of believing that the darkness comes only from external sources. We can be quick to point the finger at other people who are creating our darkness and causing our suffering.
It’s the political system. The NRA. Wall Street.
Casting blame is easier than looking in the mirror.
But if we bring the cause of our darkness into the light of our awareness, we will see the universal truth that as without, so too within. Whatever we experience externally is a reflection of what we experience internally.
As Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, also known as The Lubavitcher Rebbe (or, “The Rebbe”), explained,
the danger does not come exclusively from outside; it often lurks close to home, in the form of insidious erosion of time-honored values and principles that are at the foundation of any decent human society.
How to Enlighten the World
My trampoline coach has a maxim we call Roger’s Rule: how you go into something is how you come out of it. This rule reminds me to be intentional in how I enter a trick.
We can shift this slightly to get a new rule: you come out of something the way you went in.
We emerge from the darkness the same way we went into darkness.
A Gradual Increase
In the aftermath of the battle with the Greeks, the Jews found one pure vial of oil in the Temple to light the menorah; that one-day supply miraculously lasted for eight days.
You might think that to celebrate such a miracle we would light eight candles every night for eight nights. Instead, we light progressively. We start with one candle on the first night and increase by one candle each night until we light eight candles on the last night.
This mimics the process of nature. After the winter solstice — day of the year with the shortest amount of daylight — the days gradually get longer.
When you’ve acclimated to the dark, a sudden bright light can blind you; it is too much light all at once. Our eyes need time to adjust and acclimate.
We don’t need much light to begin the process of illumination. As the Talmudic sages said,
A little light expels a lot of darkness.
The laws of nature and the process of Chanukah itself teach us that the best path to enlightenment is through small, subtle shifts. Over time, these small shifts can lead us to a drastically brighter destination.
From Within to Without
Like your partner who sees you sitting in a dark room and instinctively feels compelled to turn on the light, we often feel the impulse to enlighten the world in times of darkness.
It’s human nature to want to bring light to others. Each time I serve on the Crew for a Tony Robbins event, I meet participants who, basking in the glow of having found their light, approach with the same question:
How do I get my [spouse/partner/child/parent/sibling/colleagues/boss] to come?
The advice I give to each participant is this:
Focus on your inner work and you won’t have to “get” anyone to come. When you show up in your light, you will guide them to their light.
All acts of service to the world must begin with our inner work.
As The Rebbe explained so beautifully,
The Chanukah Lights remind us in a most obvious way that illumination begins at home, within oneself and one’s family, by increasing and intensifying the light of the Torah and Mitzvos in the everyday experience, even as the Chanukah Lights are kindled in growing numbers from day to day. But though it begins at home, it does not stop there. Such is the nature of light that when one kindles a light for one’s own benefit, it benefits also all who are in the vicinity. Indeed, the Chanukah Lights are expressly meant to illuminate the “outside,” symbolically alluding to the duty to bring light also to those who, for one reason or another, still walk in darkness.
The path to enlightenment, like the practice of loving-kindness, and of giving in general, begins within us. When we take care to light our own inner light first, we can serve as a light for others and spread that light to the world.
Have you had enough of darkness? What’s your experience with seeing the light? Please share in the comments.