Hanukkah: A Leap of Courage and A Touch of Grace

In those days, Mattathias the son of Jonathan, the son of Simon, a priest of the sons of Joarib, arose from Jerusalem and dwelt in Modi’in…

And when he saw the blasphemies that were committed in Judah and Jerusalem, He said, “Woe is me! That I was I born to see this misery of my people, and of the holy city, and to dwell there, when it was delivered into the hand of the enemy, and the sanctuary into the hand of strangers”…

Then the king’s officers who were enforcing the apostasy came to the city of Modi’in to make them offer sacrifice [to the Greek gods]. And when many of Israel came unto them, Mattathias and his sons also came with them. Then the king’s officers spoke to Mattathias as follows: “You are a leader, honored and great in this city, and supported by sons and brethren. Now be the first to come and do what the king commands”…

Then Mattathias answered and spoke with a loud voice, “Though all the nations that are under the king’s dominion obey him, and fall away every one from the religion of their fathers, and give consent to his commandments, yet will I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers”…

When he had finished speaking these words, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice upon the altar in Modi’in, according to the king’s command. When Mattathias saw this, he became inflamed with zeal, and his heart was stirred, giving vent to righteous anger, he ran and slew him upon the altar. At the same time, he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar …

And Mattathias cried throughout the city with a loud voice, saying, “Whoever is zealous for the law, and supports the covenant, let him follow me.” So he and his sons fled into the mountains, and left all that they had in the city. – Maccabees I 2:1-28

We move from incarnation to incarnation, quietly going on with our lives, when suddenly there appears a moment where we have an opportunity to transcend the limitations of our circumstances and completely transform our lives.

The Hanukkah story takes place during a time of great darkness in Israel. Mattityahu saw his people suffering, his country deteriorating, the Temple being desecrated. When the Assyrian-Greek officers came to Modi’in, and Mattityahu saw a Jew ready to bow down before their gods, he could tolerate no more. He was not going to stand by and watch his country, religion and people destroyed, even at the risk of his own life. Mattityahu stepped up and acted, and with this single act he lit a spark that set the whole country ablaze.

This experience of inner arousal lies at the heart of the holyday of Hanukkah. Hanukkah comes at the darkest part of the year. It symbolizes the unique human capacity to find the spark, the jar of sacred oil, to restore the light of hope and faith.

We each face moments of “Hanukkah”. We have all known times when we are unhappy with our lives, when life seems overwhelming and purposeless, when we feel stuck and there is nowhere for us to go. Then suddenly something miraculous happens inside us and we discover a spark of strength and inspiration that galvanizes us into action. We are empowered to confront our inner enemies and resolutely forge ahead.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav teaches that each of us have a point of pure goodness that lies at the core of our being. No matter what happens in our lives, no matter what we have done, this point of pure goodness remains. If we can tap into this point of pure goodness, Rebbe Nachman assures us, we will be able to discover a way out of the darkness.

He compares this point of goodness to a rope that is thrown down to a person stuck in a deep pit. All we need to do is grab hold of the rope and pull ourselves out. This point of goodness is more than just a rope thrown down to save us.  It is an electric line of Divine power – a spiritual catalyst that catapults us upward into the light.

This spiritual lifeline is a Divine Hand outstretched toward us. It is an expression of blessing and grace. In fact, the whole of our spiritual journey is replete with moments of grace. The first glimmer of grace comes before we even start to take action, at the moment when we recognize our darkness and resolve to overcome it. Once we have set out on the path, then God’s blessing is needed for us to accomplish the difficult task of purification and self-transformation. Yet even after we have fulfilled this inner work, there is still no assurance that we will succeed. To reach our goal demands courage and perseverance, but also a strong dose of Divine grace.

Swami Turiyananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, used to practice severe austerities. Over his lifetime, he developed a powerful mastery over his mind. Once, while he was undergoing an operation, the swami refused the anesthetic and simply withdrew himself inward using his mind. Yet when he was asked about the role of self effort in the spiritual life, he replied: “Nothing can be achieved without the grace of God.” [1]

It is a common human failing to forget about God when caught up in the euphoria of victory – to attribute all of our successes to our own wisdom and prowess. As Moses warns the Children of Israel before they entered the Promised Land (Deut. 8:17-18): “And you say in your heart: ‘My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth.’ But you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He that gives you power to get wealth.”

It is for this reason that the rabbis placed the miracle of the jar of oil at the center of the holyday rather than the military victories of the Maccabees. Despite all of their courage and skill in battle, without God’s Grace they never could have won the war.

Without Divine Grace, Mattityahu might never have found the courage to tear down the altar. There could have been no one that responded to his call to arms. The people might not have held up throughout the many years of struggle. The jar of oil might never have been uncovered, and once located, it could have lasted for only a single day. Grace is needed throughout all of our endeavors. As Sri Ramana Maharshi once explained:

“Grace is both the beginning and the end. Introversion is due to Grace; Perseverance is Grace; and Realization is Grace.” [2]

The choice of the way of Spirit is not a onetime event. We need to keep on reaffirming our initial decision all along the path. It is easy for our spiritual life to become just a façade of spiritual living, where we offer a superficial nod toward God from time to time. We need to constantly cleanse our inner temple, to dive deep within in search of sacred oil – to overcome our complacency and hesitation and rededicate our lives to God.

The final moment of enlightenment, the culmination of the spiritual life, also follows the Hanukkah paradigm. The essence of enlightenment is breaking through the darkness of material consciousness and leaping into the light of the Divine Reality. This act of transcendence is accomplished by purifying our heart and mind until only a thin veil remains between God and us. Then a moment arrives, when a leap of courage combines with an infusion of grace, and we penetrate through the final door and enter into the light.

A story is told in Zen Buddhism about an old priest with a high-ranking position in one of the big temples. Despite his standing, the priest was grieved that his spiritual eye had not opened. Therefore, he decided to go and study Zen under the great Master Hakuin.

Though most of his time was taken up by his duties in the temple, the priest managed to visit Hakuin every day for several years. Despite these daily visits, he experienced no spiritual awakening. So the priest went to Master Hakuin.

“With such merciful instructions of yours, still I cannot see anything”, he said.

Master Hakuin replied: “Don’t be discouraged so soon. Redouble your efforts and try for three more years. If at the end of the three years, you are still unable to arrive at anywhere, cut my head off!”

For the next three years, the old priest strove with all his might, but still nothing happened. He came back to Hakuin and declared: “I cannot see anything.”

“Can’t you!” Master Hakuin answered. “It will be of no use even if you cut my head off. Try once and for all for three more months.”

Three months passed and still nothing happened. The priest then went to Hakuin with tears in his eyes and cried out: “You have given me such kind instructions, but still I cannot see anything due to my heavy karma.”

“Nothing can be done now”, Hakuin answered him; “no use for you to live any longer.”

The priest bowed to Master Hakuin saying, “Thank you indeed for your kind teaching for these years. With death I will atone for wasting it.”

He then left the monastery and walked up the mountain path to the edge of a deep precipice. The view from the precipice was breathtaking. The priest sat down on a rock and looked out over the landscape. In so doing, he fell into a state of deep meditation, forgetting all about himself.

Hours went by, the night passed and the first rays of dawn broke through the eastern sky. Absent-mindedly, the priest stood up to cast himself into the void. Just as he was about to step off the cliff, the sun broke through the clouds. Suddenly, he felt as if electricity ran through his body and the darkness in his mind disappeared. [3]

Enlightenment is a confluence of great self effort and the miracle of Divine blessing. It is a process that continues over lifetimes, and then comes to fruition in a moment of dazzling personal revelation. Yet each new step that we take along our journey is an important marker; every leap of courage is another spiritual milestone in our life.

The ritual of lighting the Hanukkah menorah acknowledges the truth of both these experiences. Each night of the holyday, we add a new candle to the menorah to acknowledge the truth that our spiritual evolution is a gradual and ongoing process. Yet the last night of Hanukkah, when all eight candles in the menorah are burning, is given a special status above the other days, because our spiritual work is only completed when all of our spiritual centers [4] are open and flowing – when our entire consciousness is illumined with the awareness of the Absolute.

Hanukkah, then, is not just the commemoration of an historical event. It is a process of spiritual awakening that is continually unfolding in our individual lives and in the collective life of all of humankind.  Over and over again, we are submerged in dense internal darkness, until we have no choice but to find a jar of sanctified oil. The spark of will and inspiration that we discover creates a miracle of strength and courage inside us. Riding on the flow of electrified emanation, we are carried up into the Light.

 

Copyright © 2013, by Yoel Glick





Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Swami Ritjananda, Swami Turiyananda, p. 15, 139
  2. Sri Mungala S. Venkataramiah, Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, p. 283-4
  3. Abbot Zenkei Shibayama, A Flower does not Talk, p. 177-8
  4. According to mystical teaching, we each have a subtle body of spiritual centers or sephirot that underlies our physical frame. In the Kabbalah, the body of sephirot is compared to the Temple Menorah, with its seven branches symbolizing the sephirot.

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