During a recent Shabbat family dinner in which we were discussing Judaism and God, my daughter’s 24 year-old boyfriend Ryan stated, “I’m always questioning and I’m always looking for answers. But I’m also accepting the reality that it’s okay not to have an answer.” His words have helped me to further understand him and the mindset of some young people today.
As tradition tells, when the Maccabees liberated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, a miracle occurred because only one day’s worth of oil for lighting the Menorah lasted for eight days. Hanukkah is probably the most well-known example of the symbol of light within Judaism, as it celebrates the miracle of the light in a historical event that took place in 165 BC. As with the other major Jewish holidays, the festival of lights offers the deeper meaning and opportunity for introspection. Although we may question the veracity of the story when we reflect on the story of Hanukkah, we may also be inspired to simply accept the concept of the miracle that it describes. The symbol of light and the miracle of light are indeed the holiday’s related messages of renewal, hope, and turning away from darkness.
One of my sweetest memories of raising our children involves the excitement and pride that they each experienced nightly during the eight nights of Hanukkah as they would recite the prayers and kindle their own menorah while we would light ours. Sometimes their grandparents shared in a meal, making the evening even more meaningful. Each child’s face was warmly lit both from the reflection of the beautiful light emanating from the menorahs and from within. For as we light the candles, we become like the glowing menorah, casting light in and around us, and lighting up the world. The lit menorah is a reminder of the miracle that inspired the holiday but it can also act as a reminder of the many miracles and blessings that comprise and envelop our lives today. The ritual of candle lighting both on Shabbat and during Hanukkah brings us together and bathes us in the warmth of family, connection, history, and tradition. I personally don’t know what has more meaning than that.
Light is fundamental to Judaism as a sign of God’s spirit and guiding force and when we light the Shabbat or menorah candles, the light represents joy and hope. Historically, light is one of the most universal and fundamental symbols for it is the source of goodness and the ultimate reality, and it has been universally associated with divinity or godliness in almost every culture and civilization. While darkness invoked fear and anxiety, light offered hope and protection to the ancient world. Hence, in every culture you will find the duality of light and darkness personifying God and evil, or order and chaos respectively.
When stress or sadness threatens to overwhelm us, we can choose to access our religious or spiritual beliefs, or practice mindfulness with a focus on our breath and the inner light. When we do this, we have an opportunity to slow down, quiet our thoughts and mind, and visualize the light spreading and permeating each and every cell. Tapping into that inner source of light and goodness and accessing the divine light can truly help to manage or even mitigate the impending darkness or chaos that surrounds us.
In my work with students and clients in both yoga classes and in private yoga therapy sessions, I always strive to draw attention to the concept of light. During the quiet meditation that starts the practice, as well as during the final resting pose, I will often guide and instruct others on how to quiet their brain, open their chest and reflect on the inner point of stillness and light within their heart. Through the guided meditation coupled with their openness and receptivity, my students gradually become more able to access their own inner healing and loving light, even visualizing it spreading beyond them selves. Additionally, it also believed that the Aum – which we chant together to formally begin or end the practice – will illuminate those who are touched by it.
It is believed that when we choose to focus on the light that shines in the mind as pure light, it will then reflect objects accurately and lead to right discrimination, mental clarity, and brilliance. When the mind is free from impurities, the original luster and light for the Self manifest in the mind and illuminates it like the sun that shines in the clear, bright sky. In the body the eyes represent the sun and the moon since they are filled with the light of Self. As the sense organs, they have limitations in perceiving truth. The Upanishads, a collection of texts written between 800 BC and 500 BC that form the core of Indian philosophy, declare that between the eyebrows there is the light of the Self – the third eye – which can see without seeing, and which can perceive beyond the mind and the senses the truths that are imperceptible to them. When our mind and heart are open to the depth and wealth of the inner richness that is bathed in light and love, it not only illuminates our spirit but spreads outwardly to touch those we care about.
As we approach the winter solstice and the days grow longer and darker with the world appearing to be out of balance with frequent and random acts of violence, it is even more important to meditate on the idea of light and enjoy the ritual of lighting the menorah with our loved ones. By maintaining the tradition and having trust in its stories, including the miracle of Hanukkah, we tap into the source within. We may not be able to have the tangible answers that Ryan is seeking but we can find in our hearts the light to brighten our path with humility and integrity, to embrace and illuminate our relationships with kindness and love, and to enhance our lives with faith and meaning.