Friday, December 17, 2010

Hanukkah, Inner Light, and Positive Action

Hanukkah is over; all that is left behind are reflections about the significance of the holiday. I want to take a few minutes to talk about my experience with Hanukkah.

I really saw the beauty of the Hanukkah lights for the first time last year. I used those small, multi-colored twisted ones that my family's used for as long as I can remember. I just looked at the colors and flames. Seeing those candles burn looked beautiful to me. I think of holidays as a time for rituals and actions. But I didn't do anything special. I just looked.

This year, I lit the candles again. Once more, I took pleasure in their beauty. I didn't spend as much time gazing at them as I had the year before; I was preoccupied with other things. But I did get to read up on the traditional themes concerning the holiday. What stuck out the most was the always-useful, ever-simple, and obnoxiously frustrating motto, "do the next right thing".

When the temple was cleaned up, and the only "pure" oil found was a small jug containing enough oil for one day (some say not even a full day), there was a choice to be made - should one lamp be lit for the week it would take to harvest and process new oil? Or should all lamps be lit, even if it was just for one day? Should nothing be lit at all until a significant quantity of oil was brought back in order to keep the menorah lit fully and regularly as it had been in the past?

The next right thing was done. The next right thing, at the time, was lighting the menorah as it was meant to have been lit, all seven lamps at once. The miracle was that each day, there was enough oil left in the jug for another day of light. When we take things one step at a time, and do the next right thing, miracles can happen.  This reminds me of a friend I have who was sharing with me about a tool that was useful in helping her put active drug addiction behind her. She uses the popular recovery phrase, "Just for today". She told me that she stays abstinent by telling herself it is just for today. She tells herself that she might use drugs tomorrow, but just for today she will stay clean and sober. She said, "the miracle is that tomorrow never comes".

If we stay in today, and if we can even stay in this very moment, it isn't too hard. Our tasks aren't overwhelming if we focus on the very next thing we must do. When we take things one step at a time, we often find that things aren't so bad, we aren't so annoyed, bored,  or overwhelmed and panicked about what our lives bring us. Miraculously, we find we have a little bit of "oil" left over for the next task or challenge. At least that's how things work for me.

But it's easier said than done. Staying focused on today and doing the next right thing is one of the hardest things for me. When I choose to stay in the moment and do the next right thing, miracles happen, and I find myself having fun instead of bored or overwhelmed. The keyword here is when. I suppose that's a part of my spiritual journey I will have to keep working at.

Another theme of Hanukkah is having faith in God. The Judeans were a vastly outnumber and inexperienced army. This ties in to the theme of the hanukkiah, or special menorah we use during the holiday. The traditional menorah had seven branches, and the holiday ones have eight, plus a servant, creating nine in total.

The seven branches symbolize the natural order of life, expressed in a lunar weekday (the lunar cycle is approximately 28 days, divided into four sections of seven; all together they create a 'moon' or 'month'. Our secular/Christian calendar has been adjusted to include the extra days that make up a complete solar year). I also read a brilliant observation by Starhawk in her book, "The Earth Path", where she noted that branching systems tend to be grouped in sevens, whether they are trees, rivers, etc...

God/dess is in nature. There is no distinction between nature and the "supernatural". However, we do not understand entirely how nature works. What is nature? The essence, the spirit, the core reality of a person, place or thing. So a menorah with seven branches represents the seven weekdays and the seven branches in the branching systems on earth. However, with a hanukkiah, we notice something extra. Something that seems "supernatural" or unnatural.

Traditional Jewish sources say that this is evidence that we can't rely on nature, but on God/dess alone. I disagree. Nature is God/dess and God/dess is expressed in nature. The thing is, we are human and have limited perceptions and limited abilities for comprehension. I would, therefore, say that we can't ever think we know the whole picture.  We can't ever tell ourselves we know all the facts, because we don't. We, as individuals, may never know all the facts. However, with our limited perceptions human biases, we must still make choices based on what we do know or perceive.

There is an upside to this. It means we can always carry hope with us. No matter how hopeless or terrible a situation seems, we don't have all the facts. This is where building a relationship with God/dess/Spirit/Corn Mother/Dancing Elves/Magic Eight Ball/etc... comes in. When we rely on our limited perceptions, things can seem hopeless. The Judeans were in what seemed to be a hopeless situation. The first battle that was won for them was not on the battlefield. Nor was it in the city streets or countryside. It was in the mind. It was the "mustard seed", as Jesus would say.

Another major theme of Hanukkah is bringing light into the world. When Hanukkah came this year, I was going through a major romantic obsession. The object of my obsession is a very handsome man with many wonderful qualities.  The problem was, I feared I didn't.  I had recently been getting lots of attention from a variety of men. These were men whom I actually wanted attention from, which was a pleasant surprise.

Let me backtrack for a moment. Growing up, I didn't think I was pretty at all. People (excluding my family) didn't tell me I was pretty. Instead, they would usually comment on how beautiful my sister was. So I assumed I was about as attractive as a garden stake. But when I was fourteen, something happened. I looked into a mirror. It was a simple act I had done thousands of times before. But that time, something was different. I was shocked to discover a beautiful young lady staring back at me. I wondered if I was seeing something that no one else did.

As an adult, I'm insecure about my body. I am a large woman. So about a month ago, I was pleased to find that I was attracting men who had qualities I found desirable. I was pleased because I believed that maybe, just maybe, I actually deserved this attention. Maybe I, too, was desirable. I've been working on accepting, caring for, and loving myself for a while. And I am, over time, coming to believe that I am pretty, fun, and cool. I'm worth hanging around. I'm worth liking.

And then everything exploded. I took a sharp turn into the land of romantic obsession. I became dazzled by a very handsome man with many wonderful qualities. And I became convinced that I myself was not going to be good enough unless I had this person's affection. I believed that this person's spirituality was infinitely more advanced than mine, and that this person was a paragon of virtue - while I was yesterday's snowfall turned to grey slush melting on the highway.

So one day I cornered them after a community function, looked them straight in the eye, and said, "Do you want to date me?"

After one date, which was an exercise in frustration, I received the answer to my question: no.

I'm slowly climbing out of that obsession. It's hard, and I don't like doing it. I want to stay in it. It is difficult to maintain distance because I am in the same community and social circle as the object of my romantic obsession. But for the most part, I do it. It doesn't feel good. But I find myself feeling better afterward.

What is it about this person that I was so obsessed with? They shone. They allowed their inner lamp to glow. But I shine, too. I shine when I write, create music or art, or go through my daily responsibilities. We all shine, all the time. But we also cover up our lights. We get scared or embarrassed of our lights. Or sometimes we're going through a life-storm, and it can be hard to see our light glowing through the downpour.

The challenge in life isn't just in lighting our lamps, it is in letting their light shine. When we light our holiday menorahs, it is tradition to do it in a doorway or a window in order to "publicize" the miracles we celebrate. We don't use the lights for any other purpose but to shine.

I'm not convinced the Hanukkah story is real, or that the holiday isn't based on ancient Pagan customs. I would consider myself a Jewish Christo-Pagan anyways, so I guess that's fine by me. I'm not sure that the Maccabeean victory is something to celebrate as fully as we do, given it's violence and forced religious conversions (including King Herod's family).

But this year, as I lit my menorah, I prayed and hoped that somehow, the act of celebrating Hanukkah with lights would help me to let my own light shine more brightly.

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