Swami Ashokananda, the head of the Vedanta Society of San Francisco for over 40 years, once recounted to one of his devotees the following personal reminisce about an experience that he had on the beach in Madras/Chennai:

“Once, as I stood on the beach, suddenly my mind opened up and ideas began to come like lightning. They were ideas I had never had before, had never read anywhere – completely new and original ideas. They were of another order than the ideas one usually has, an entirely different order… They were not related to anything on this plane of thought. It made me think that there is a vast thought world and that our minds are only on the fringe of it.” [1]

We live in a material world and are locked into a physical state of consciousness. We see and understand but a tiny fraction of the greater reality which underlies the outer facade which we can see, hear and touch.

The purpose of religion is to lift us out of the narrow confines of this physical consciousness, to expand our horizons and make us receptive to a broader picture – to attune us to ideas and perspectives that are beyond the normal realm of thought.

The Baal Shem Tov teaches that in the celestial “yeshivah”, the Book of the Zohar is learned with a new interpretation every day.[2] This is because our manifest reality constantly takes on new forms and consciousness, and according to these changes, the teachings in the Zohar need to be interpreted in a different way. The Rabbis tell us that there are seventy faces to the Torah; each face is another expression of the Infinite Divine Truth.

The ability to work from this broader palette is one of the signs of a great spiritual teacher. A great teacher can teach many different kinds of students. He or she is able to hold a wide spectrum of viewpoints at one time.

When his brother disciples questioned Swami Vivekananda’s interpretation of Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings, Swami Vivekananda replied:

“Our Master is not so limited as you think he is. Wonderful is his life and infinite are his ideas. Who can say that he has understood him? He is peerless. Nothing finite can contain the infinite, and he was infinite in every respect.” [3]

Part of this expansive consciousness comes from maintaining an inquisitive mind. We need to be curious like a child that always sees everything with new eyes. This is the meaning of the rabbinic dictum (Haggigah 9B) that learning a mishnah maih paam – one hundred times – is not the same as learning it maiah v’echad pa’am – one hundred and one times. We learn the passage one hundred times so that we “own” it, and then we go over it one more time so that we see the passage with fresh sight.

Another aspect of this heightened spiritual awareness is the continual expansion of our personal horizons. We need to broaden our ideas about what we can achieve in this life. We have all heard the teaching that there is a spark of God inside each of us. How many of us really believe that this is true? How many of us have faith that the power of the infinite is inside us? If we did, we would have faith that we can accomplish almost anything.

This expanded viewpoint also applies to our conception of others. The Ethics of the Fathers 4:1 states: “Who is wise? He who learns from every person.” How often do we look at another person and not really see who is in front of us? How often do we tune out when someone starts to speak?

Broken relationships arise out of an inability to change the way we perceive of each other – an inability to expand our inner boundaries. To truly relate is to be open to new ideas and new experiences, to really listen when another speaks. We need to meet each other every time as if it is the first.

This is also true regarding our relationship with God. How many of us hold on to the same conception of God all of our life? Just like any other relationship, our ideas about God need to expand and grow. Our challenge is to move from a child’s conception of God to an adult’s view of Deity; from the idea of a kindly grandfather who gives us what we want, to the living awareness of a Divine Being Who encompasses the whole of the universe in His/Her consciousness.

Having an expansive awareness means living with breadth of vision and a consciousness of hope. People make all kinds of dire predictions about the future of the world, but we can never really know what is going to happen. Unexpected forces can alter our history. Events that we never imagined can create a radical shift in the course of our lives. An expansive consciousness prepares us for these pivotal moments. Openness and faith prime us for the spiritual opportunities that life presents.

There is a famous disagreement between the schools of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shamai regarding the lighting of the Hanukkah candles. The followers of Rabbi Shamai rule that we should light eight candles on the first night, and light one candle less each night until we have only a single candle left on the final night.

The followers of Rabbi Hillel, on the other hand, rule that we should light one candle on the first night, and add an additional candle each night until we have eight candles on the last night.

The Hasidic Master, Abraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt, explains that disagreement between Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel is based on their understanding of the Hanukkah miracle. Beit Shamai believes that the full power of the eight days of the miracle was contained in the small jar of oil lit on the first night by the Maccabees. After the first night, the power of the miracle diminished each day until there was no more spiritual energy left on the eighth and final day. This is the reason that they decided that we should light eight candles on the first night and one candle less each night thereafter.

Beit Hillel, in contrast, believes that the extent of the miracle, in fact, grew from day to day. The first miracle was finding sacred oil in the defiled Temple. Imagine the joy of the Maccabees when they discovered that despite the ransacking of the Temple, one small jar with the seal of the High Priest still remained.

This, however, was only the beginning of the miracle. The small jar contained only enough oil to last one day. Yet the oil lasted not two or even three days, but a full eight days until suitable oil could be obtained for the Temple Menorah.

Beit Hillel therefore believes that our candle lighting should reflect this process of the miracle’s continual unfolding. We should light one candle on the first day and then add another candle each night. [4]

Rebbe Avraham Yehoshu’s teaching touches on a much deeper truth. Miracles often begin in a small, quiet way. An expansive vision is required to recognize when a door is opening. We need to be alert to new beginnings and revelations. We need to be prepared for a Divine surprise to appear in our lives.

This is the inner meaning of the holyday of Hanukkah. It is also the reason for the special significance of the eighth day.

The Maccabees had the courage to face the Assyrian-Greeks. They had the faith to search for the jar of oil amid the desolation of the Temple. They had the insight to grasp that a tiny container could rekindle the light of the Shechinah; that a few drops of oil could become a blaze of inner light.

A miracle can happen at any moment, if we are open to the possibility. All it takes is a willingness to search for the hidden jar of oil in every act and every encounter. And the vision to imagine the radiant spiritual force that each can become.


Copyright © 2011, by Yoel Glick


Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Sister Gargi, A Disciple’s Journal, p. 237
  2.  Menachem Mendel Shub, Baal Shem Tov al haTorah, Torah portion V’Etchanan # 72.
  3. Swami Chetananda, How a Shepherd Boy became a Saint, p. 79
  4. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt, Ohev Yisreal, section on Hanukkah