Today is the first day of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights.
What is Chanukah?
The word Chanukah means dedication. On this holiday we celebrate the re-dedication of the second temple after the Maccabees defeated the Syrian-Greeks, who had tried to force the Jewish people to assimilate.
When the Jews returned to the temple they found only one vial of purified oil for the menorah. The one-day supply of oil miraculously lasted for eight days.
On Chanukah, we commemorate this miracle by lighting candles for eight nights, in progressive order. One on the first night, two on the second night, and so on.
As we light the candles we sing that
These candles are sacred. And we don’t have permission to use them, only to look at them.
What does this mean?
We don’t use the light. We see the light.
We do not light the Chanukah candles for warmth, or to give us reading light, or set a mood for dinner or facilitate any other activity.
The Chanukah candles are not a symbol of something else.
The point is to literally see the light. And we put the menorah in the window so that those passing by — or looking from their own windows — can also see the light.
How do we see the light?
We see the light by slowing down.
The candles invite me in, almost forcing me to slow down to embrace the moment. It is a brief, sacred pause, an invitation to rest and reflect.
Chanukah candles are not big; they burn down within about 45 minutes to an hour.
Watching this process is a form of meditation. As I watch the flames dance in the darkness, I study them in their fine nuance.
The thin stick of wax candle. The blue base that hugs the wick. The orange and yellow glow of the flame.
What does it mean to see the light?
After a few moments, my mind clears and my breath slows. I begin to merge with the flames. I see into myself.
This, of course, is what it means to see the light. The light is not external to us. It is within us. It is us.
The candles are a portal to an experience, an invitation to look for and see something deeper within ourselves.
Who are you? What is your purpose? How are you being and living and participating in this life?
More than merely a holiday that marks days with lights and presents, Chanukah offers us the opportunity to practice dedicating ourselves to each moment with presence.
On each of the eight days of Chanukah, this is the invitation: slow down. Take a sacred pause. Light the candles and then sit back to watch. Allow the flames to draw you into yourself.
See the light.