Hanukkah: By your light, we shall see

In Judaism, light has many interconnected meanings

By your light, we shall see light (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
By your light, we shall see light
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Hanukkah is the festival of light. It is not a celebration of mere physical light, it is a festival of the light that illuminates and enlightens in the spiritual sense.
In Judaism, light has many interconnected meanings. It means the Divine light, the light of Hashem, God, Who is the ultimate reality. When Hashem said “Let there be light,” creation and reality as we know it came into being. When one says, “I have seen the light” it means that one has recognized the truth or come to see the reality of a situation.
Light also refers to Torah, which is the way that Hashem reveals Himself to humankind. Light is also the soul, the spark of Divinity that we as humans carry within us, and the radiance on a person’s face, the image of Hashem, which the visible manifestation of our inner light.
There is a famous question asked by Maimonides, the Rambam, at the end of his codification of the laws of Hanukkah. The question is, if one has only limited funds and cannot afford both, does he give preference to Hanukkah candles or does he use the money for Shabbat candles instead? The answer, after some debate, comes out in favor of Shabbat candles. The reason is that Shabbat candles bring shalom, that is, peace and harmony into the home. At first glance this looks like a merely sentimental and romantic idea, because we associate candlelight with a certain atmosphere.
The actual reason goes far deeper and can be inferred by the deeper significance of light. Reality is the transcendent and all-inclusive principle that encompasses the totality of all things, including actual and conceptual structures, present and past events and phenomena, whether observable or not. Reality and life are synonymous. Torah is the blueprint of reality. The opposite of light in the mystical sense is darkness, which implies unreality and ultimately death. The ancient Greek Empire that wanted to destroy Torah is, according to the Maharal of Prague, alluded to in the beginning of the book of Genesis as primordial, the darkness that existed before creation.
The way that light brings peace and harmony is that it helps us to perceive reality, and more specifically, the phenomena that make up reality more sharply. The more exactly one is able to define the nature of phenomena, the more elegantly one can determine their relationships to each other. Relationships are governed by boundaries, which are the contours of reality.
Through the light of wisdom and truth, people can perceive themselves, their own natures, motives, intentions, feelings, needs and interests more clearly. They can in turn also be more able to recognize the subjective world and interests of others. Through this clarity people are able to more effectively collaborate with each other and more gracefully navigate their tasks, roles and relationships to create harmony in the world. In short, the enlightened person is the one who is able to live harmoniously and foster peace in the world.
People, deep down, all wish for the same thing. Every person craves deep meaningful connections with themself and others. We all wish to experience the profound satisfaction, joy and tranquility of spirit that is borne out of living in a world characterized by truth and harmony. Everyone has the desire, even if they are not aware of it, to be able to comfortably express themselves in an authentic way and to be seen, heard, felt, valued and understood for who they really are, to be able to express the totality of one’s unique gifts and talents and to be loved and accepted unconditionally for who they are.
ONE COULD describe this as the desire to stand in one’s own light. This basic drive can be stated in one phrase: the will to shalom. Not only do we long for shalom, we were created for it. According to the Rambam, it is such a great and foundational principle that the Torah was given purely for shalom.
People associate shalom with a nice greeting or with peace in the simple basic sense of an absence of conflict. These notions do not begin to explain to the true meaning of shalom. The idea that the concept of shalom can be reduced to a mere passive state of tranquility is reductionist and even somewhat misleading. If Shalom is the absence of conflict then to achieve it would require people to passively avoid authentic engagement with other’s and life’s complex and perplexing issues.
The deeper one’s engagement with others and with the complexities of life, the more tension is generated. The conflicts that result have to be managed is a creative and masterful way. In truth, therefore, shalom is by necessity an active dynamic state that has to be proactively pursued and preserved.
If one contemplates creation, then it becomes obvious that the entire universe is composed of conflicting and competing forces all vying for dominance and survival. All life in the physical world is similarly animated by the imperative to survive. In the midst of all the enormous tensions of competing forces and interests, there is balance, harmony and perfection. What keeps creation in accord is the ascendancy of shalom. Just as conflict fragments and ultimately destroys the world, shalom sustains the world.
When people actively pursue, nurture, foster and preserve shalom they bring light into the world. Light in the sense of wisdom and truth helps one to see deeply into the nature of life and to have a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the infinite potential and value of people.
 The Shabbat candles bring shalom because without light people would literally bump into each other. In the deeper sense, when people live in the darkness of not having access to reality and truth in the highest sense, they become objectified to themselves and in turn perceive others as mere objects. When objects appear as obstacles, the natural response is to aggressively try to get them out of one’s way.
The enlightened person is the one who can discern and bring out the best in others, shining a torch on their intrinsic beauty and worth. People touched by this light, are moved to become the best that they can be, and to in turn bring out the best in others. The more light one has access to, the bigger, deeper and more detailed the picture that one is able to perceive. From this perspective a person who has access to light is able to bring differences between people into a harmonic counterpoint. Like the rainbow that combines fire and water, which is, according to the Kotzker Rebbe, why Hashem chose it as the symbol of shalom, so people can use wisdom to create consensus and cooperation out of their differences, giving rise in the process to something greater that what any one on their own could have achieved.
Shalom can be read as “shaleim” by just changing the Hebrew vowels. Shaleim means wholeness and completion. It also implies actualization and perfection. The choice to pursue shalom is a choice to align oneself with goodness and truth and to become a partner with the Creator in helping the world to evolve toward its ultimate perfection.
The writer is a South Africa-based clinical psychologist, an organizational development consultant, expert witness and life coach, also appearing extensively on radio and television.