This is Hanukkah

The eighth and last day of Hanukkah has a special significance in the Hasidic tradition. This added significance is emphasized by the distinctive manner by which we refer to this day: zot Hanukkah – “this is Hanukkah”, as if all the other days are somehow incomplete and only this day is whole.[1]

This exclamation also finds an echo in the language of the Torah where the phrase “zot hanukkat hamizbayach”, “this is the dedication of the altar” (Numbers 7:84), is used to describe the completion of the dedication and anointing ceremony for the altar and Tabernacle in the desert.

This unusual stress on the eighth day of the holyday comes to tell us an important truth about the spiritual path: if we want to approach God, then it is not enough for us to merely look in His or Her direction from time to time; we need to place God at the center of our life. If we want to reach God-realization, then it is not enough for us to know that there is a Divine spark inside us; we need to turn that knowledge into a living reality.

After Sri Ramakrishna’s passing, Swami Brahmananda, one of his senior disciples, traveled throughout India meditating and practicing austerities. One day during his journeys, he met one of Sri Ramakrishna’s great devotees. After the devotee had observed Brahmananda’s way of life for a few days, he asked the swami in astonishment:

“The master gave you all that is covetable in spiritual life: visions and samadhi (Divine communion). Why then do you still practice so much austerity?”

Swami Brahmananda humbly answered:

“The experiences and visions I got by his grace, I am now trying to attain as my permanent possession.” [2]

The Hebrew word zot implies something that you can point to with your finger. For example, there is a passage in the Talmud (Ta’anit 31) which states that at the end of days God will make a circle of all the great souls in the Garden of Eden with Himself in the middle, and each of the great souls will then point to God and say: “zot – this is the God that we aspired to.”

There are many individuals who have had a spiritual experience: a glimpse of the higher reality, a touch from their soul or some other type of inner awakening. It is something that is surprisingly common. There are very few people, however, that are able to say that God is as real to them as this material reality. Zot Hanukkah is when God is so real that you can “point” to Him or Her with your finger.

The number eight is the symbol of completion in the Kabbalah. It also has a particular meaning in spiritual science: when the process of spiritual development comes to its final fruition, all the seven centers become fully active, with energy flowing in every direction throughout the spiritual body. At this moment, as the soul and personality merge together and the individual unites with God, all seven centers fuse together in the head chakra and become one great beacon of light. This spiritual event is the truth behind the declaration in the Gospels (Matt. 6:22): “If your eye be single, then your body will be filled with light.” It is this body “filled with light” that is the illumination of zot Hanukkah.

Hanukkah is an eight-day spiritual process that begins on the first day with the miracle of finding a single vessel of sanctified oil to light the Menorah in the Temple. This miracle is a great gift in itself: discovering the light amidst the darkness, hope in the midst of despair. However, the true Hanukkah comes only on the eighth day, when we turn that light into a blazing fire; when we take the revelation that we have received on the first day and transform it a living and unshakeable fact in our lives.

When we feel desperate and hopeless, we are ready to do anything. We turn to God and beg Him or Her to help us find our path. In response to our pleas, God gives us an opportunity to rededicate our lives; to live life with a higher purpose and a deeper meaning. Yet how many of us actually grab hold of that opportunity with all of our might and bring it to fruition? How often do we, instead, simply turn back to following our old ways?

We are told that when the mother of Sri Ramana Maharshi lay dying, he held her in his arms and took her through all the unfulfilled desires and mental impressions that would cause her future births. In this way, she was able to bypass all future incarnations and become liberated in the Self.[3]

It is this same inner struggle that keeps each of us from realizing God. When God shows us a way forward, we take one or two steps in the right direction, but then we become trapped by the desires and tendencies that have built up over lifetimes. We allow the opinions of others, the praise or blame of the world, the trials and tribulation of our life to daunt and deter us. We permit the unfulfilled dreams of our parents, friends and children to bind us to this world.

It serves no purpose for us to be alight for an instant, if the next moment we turn our back on God and re-immerse ourselves in the world and all of its desires. To get a glimpse of the higher truth is of little value to us, if we lose courage and faith at the first obstacle that comes along our path.  Bravely setting out across a deep abyss provides us with no real gain, if when we reach the halfway mark, we turn around and head back to the beginning again. Our whole struggle only becomes meaningful when we persevere until we have attained our goal.

The true Hanukkah will only come when we have transcended all of the pushes and pulls of this material world; when our sense of Self is so strong that nothing and no one can unsettle us. Then, the work is completed; then, it is zot Hanukkah. Until that time, the miracle remains in the balance, and the rededication is only a hope and an aspiration, and not a vital fact.

This is the meaning of the rabbinic question that opens the discussion of Hanukkah in the Talmud (Shabbat 21): “Mai Hanukkah” – “what is Hanukkah?” Is it a military victory? Is it a religious resurgence? Is it the rededication of the Temple? What is the true meaning of this holyday? How does it take us closer to God? How does it take Israel and humanity closer to its goal? What does it say about the purpose of human existence? What does it reveal to us about the Hand of God working in the world?

These spiritual questions underlie the discussion that follows about how to light the Hanukkah menorah. The opinion of Beit Shamai is that we should start with eight candles on the first night and go down to one. The opinion of Beit Hillel is to start with one candle and add another each day until the eighth.

The opinion of Beit Shamai mirrors a view of this world that sees man at a great spiritual height in the beginning of creation, and in decline ever since. The opinion of Beit Hillel reflects an opposite view that sees human history as a process of constant spiritual evolution, with new light being added to the world at every moment – light that will continue to grow until the whole of existence is filled with Divine illumination.

We light the candles according to the opinion of Beit Hillel, and this Halachic (legal) decision reflects the spiritual vision that Judaism has embraced. This vision has profound implications for the way in which we view the world.

For example, if we look at the State of Israel from this viewpoint, the creation of the State in 1948 can be understood as the first day of Hanukkah – the miracle of salvation in the moment of greatest despair. But the birth of the State was only the beginning; zot Hanukkah will only come when we transform the country into a dwelling place for the presence of the Shekhinah.

The same is also true for humanity as a whole. After a period of great doubt, we are learning a new way of approaching God and relating to religion. The rebirth of spirituality among millions of human beings can be seen as a hopeful beginning – the first step towards rekindling the light. However, for this spiritual awakening to come to full fruition, humanity must break through the barrier that separates us from those on higher planes. When the Kingdom of Heaven becomes a living reality for the majority of humanity, then it will be zot Hanukkah; then we will know that the “Temple of God” has been re-established upon earth.

 

Copyright © 2015, by Yoel Glick

 

Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. see for example, the book Yismach Yisrael, Yisrael of Alexander, on the eighth day of Hanukkah
  2. A Guide to Spiritual Life, translation by Swami Chetanananda, quoted in Swami Chetanananda, God Lived with Them, p. 88-89
  3. Arthur Osborne, Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-knowledge, p. 83