This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, said the Lord of hosts. Whoever you are, O great mountain in the path of Zerubbabel, turn into level ground! For he shall produce that excellent stone; it shall be greeted with shouts of “Beautiful! Beautiful!”
— Haftarah for Hanukkah Zachariah 4:7
When all nine candles are lit and the menorah sits in your window fully ablaze, it is surely one of the most beautiful sights of the year. I like to go outside and look into my home; I love seeing it glow with the light of the menorah. It is an awesome and inspiring sight. And it is a sight that always draws me back in.
According to our tradition, one is prohibited from using the light emanating from the menorah for any purpose other than the sheer enjoyment of viewing it. This is holy light, holy fire — it is both powerful and good. We celebrate Hanukkah by lighting the menorah for eight days, adding a new flame each night. The way we light the menorah is based on the Talmudic concept of ma’alim b’kodesh — moving through world by increasing holiness with each step. On Hanukkah, as the flames grow in light and heat, they also grow in holiness with each passing night.
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan wrote that holiness occurs when power and goodness co-exist in perfect harmony. From observing the fully illuminated menorah, we learn that we can attain holiness in our lives through slowly growing our power or strength and our goodness, one step at a time. As individuals, we grow our power by constantly challenging ourselves, by never shying away from new experiences, or from new ideas or new ventures.
We gain power through being open to growing and evolving as people. And we also gain power by nurturing relationships in our lives that support and uplift us. We can see by looking in the newspaper or watching the news — this year more than any other in a long time — that money and jobs are not what make people strong or powerful. All these things are fleeting. My mother tells me on a regular basis that those who grew up poor, those who were refugees (as she was), those who have known hard times, they will survive this economic downturn.
I know that the people willing to change their habits, learn new skills, buy less and save more will survive this current economic crisis. We do this one step at a time. We can grow stronger right now by slowly changing one step at a time. This is our challenge and our salvation.
But power and strength alone will not define our lives as holy; they alone will not save us. We must also grow in goodness — especially in hard times. In the story of the Creation we learn that God affirms many aspects of creation by pronouncing the words tov m’od — “it was very good.”
The starting place to grow in goodness is to have an appreciation for Creation and a gratitude for life as it is, and not as we hope for it to be. If we can find moments, people, things, snapshots of what is right in our lives, then we can access the possibility for growing in goodness. Each night we light the menorah we appreciate and enjoy its light.
We see beauty in the menorah every night — not just on the last night, the grandest night of our celebration. Our approach to life must be to treasure each day, to see what is good in each day, and to allow our gratitude to grow each day. We can do this in many ways — through prayer, through loving and caring for those around us and the earth, through sharing our gratitude and positive energy with others who are in need of not just our goodness but also our strength.
The Haftarah for Hanukkah states that it is not by might alone, not by power alone, but through God’s spirit that we move forward in life through both good times and hard times. This is how we can overcome the greatest hurdles. This is how we climb the highest mountains. God’s spirit is holiness and we can access this holiness every day in how we live our lives. We can choose lives of holiness through each and every step we take. This is real and it is practical, and it is what really matters in life. When we live lives of holiness, lives that are a harmonious blending of power and goodness, we know we are living the best lives we can possibly lead and that the universe will respond to us with shouts of “Beautiful, Beautiful.”
Judaism contains deep and important spiritual teachings for today. I urge you, especially if you are feeling fear, anxiety, depression and anger due to the many changes that are happening in our world, to turn to our tradition and to seek out the wisdom of our teachings. If you are not a member of a synagogue, do not hesitate to reach out to the local Jewish community for support. The wisdom and teachings of Judaism are here for all of us to enjoy. You do not need to look in from the outside — come in and feel the warmth and glow of our tradition.
May you have a happy Hanukkah filled with light and love, joy and peace, goodness, strength, and, most of all, holiness.