One small flame
Totally optional poem: road sign

Crazy eights

On the ALEPH-Pnai-Or email list, someone recently put out a request for Chanukah teachings, and my teacher Reb Arthur Waskow offered a teaching I want to excerpt and riff on here. He wrote:

I think that one is to see the leap from one day's oil to eight days' light as a teaching that we leap from Unity to Infinity. ("Eight" is the number of Beyond.) That if we take ONE seriously, plunge deeply into The One, we find ourselves in the Infinite.

"'Eight' is the number of Beyond." This is a gorgeous insight. Let me try to unpack it for those who aren't immediately going "aha!"

The paradigmatic number in Torah is seven. The Torah begins with a verse containing 7 words and 28 letters (divisible by 7.) Seven days of creation; seven weeks of counting the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot, which are mapped to the seven lower sefirot (divine attributes or qualities in which we too partake.) The original menorah was a seven-branched candelabrum, lit in the tabernacle and later in the Temple sanctuary in Jerusalem (and echoed in many contemporary synagogues worldwide.)

Kabbalah teaches that seven represents completeness, a single perfect cycle. Six days of work followed by Shabbat, six years of work followed by a sabbatical year, and so on. And the sevens just keep going: seven blessings recited in a Jewish wedding, the Torah speaks of seven Noachide laws that pertain to all humanity, Jewish mysticism describes seven layers or levels of heaven, in Pharaoh's dream there were seven cows and seven stalks of grain, Rosh Hashanah falls in the seventh month, the world contains seven continents and seven seas, on Simchat Torah we dance in seven circles. (Hat tip to this Ask the Rabbi column, from whence many of these references were drawn.)

And yet Chanukah lasts for eight days. If seven represents a round week in its wholeness -- the range of divine qualities that streamed into creation during those six paradigmatic days followed by the first paradigmatic Shabbat -- eight is all that and then some. Eight goes beyond. And, of course, in the system of numerals most of us today use, the number eight matches the symbol for infinity turned on its side.

When we make the metaphysical shift from seven to eight, from one whole week to and-then-some, we transcend our ordinary systems and enter into the Infinite. That's one of the things Chanukah can be about. Cool, eh? חנוכה סמח / Happy Chanukah!

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