Sfat Emet on lighting candles and finding God within
November 30, 2010
In 2009 I took a two-semester class called Moadim l'Simcha, "Seasons of Our Rejoicing," which looked at the round of the spiritual year through the lens of Hasidic texts. It is one of my favorite classes I've taken during this whole rabbinic school adventure. (Here's the series of three posts I made at the end of that class: The shape of the spiritual year, The year as spiritual practice, Hasidut and paradigm shifting.)
The group met once after our formal learning was over, during Chanukah, in order to study Hasidic texts about Chanukah. I wasn't able to make the class -- Drew was only a few weeks old -- but I downloaded the recording, and listened to part of it late one night as Drew nursed. But I didn't have the Hasidic texts in front of me, and it was hard for me to internalize the learning without the printed material to look at. Also I was exhausted and overwhelmed and it was the middle of the night! So I saved the mp3 for another day.
Chanukah approaches again, which makes this the perfect time to listen to this recording and take in some wisdom from the Hasidic masters, from my classmates, and from my dear teacher R' Elliot Ginsburg. Here are some gleanings from the first part of that extra class, taught around this time on the Jewish calendar last year. This text comes from the Sfat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger.
"The candle of God is the soul of man, searching all of one's deepest places." (Proverbs 20:27) In the Gemara we read about searching for leaven with a candle -- about searching our internal places as though we were searching the deepest cavities of our bodies.
(He's suggesting that there's a connection between our Chanukah candles, and the candle which we use to search for leaven before Pesach, and this idea that our souls are divine candles.)
The mishkan (sanctuary / dwelling-place for God) and the beit hamikdash (the Holy Temple) dwell in the hearts of every person in Israel. This is the meaning of the verse "Build Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them" (Exodus 25:8) -- e.g., within the hearts of the people. When one understands that one's life-force is in one's soul, one is doing a kind of personal refinement or spiritual clarification. Every day when we say elohai neshama [in the daily liturgy, we recite "My God, the soul that you have placed within me is pure"] we're doing that spiritual work. There is a single point of purity in each person of Israel -- though this point is hidden, secreted away. But in the days when the Temple stood, it was revealed and known that our life-force was in/from God.
Once upon a time, there was an externalization of divinity. God's presence in the world was manifest through the Temple, which helped us recognize that God was the source of all life. Today, when that architecture no longer stands, the reality that we burn with divine life-force is hidden to us, and needs to be revealed through doing internal spiritual work.
Now that the mishkan is hidden, divinity can nevertheless be found by searching with candles [as we do on the night before Pesach, and as we do when we kindle festival lights.]
In other words: even without the Temple, divinity can still be found. We just have to search for it. And there may be something about the act of kindling lights which helps us do that internal seeking.
The candles [which we use in our spiritual seeking] are the mitzvot. We search for God by doing mitzvot. The way that we search, with all of our hearts, is to perform the mitzvot with all of our heart, soul, life-force.
We can see the mitzvot as tools of searching. He's not just talking about literal candles and the lighting thereof; he's talking about how each time we do mitzvot, we are kindling a kind of light. Through the mitzvot, we go inward. When we do mitzvot, they act as candles, illumining us. This is not how we usually think about mitzvot, but it may have extra resonance for us this week as we literally illumine the lights of Chanukah.
The candle is the soul and the spirit, but it's also the 248 parts of our body which actively perform the mitzvot in awe and love. Ner (candle) can be read as an acronym for nefesh + ruach, "spirit + soul," and the gematria of ner equals 250 [in the rabbinic imagination, 248 represents all of the bones and sinews of the body; add two more for "love" and "spirit," and you get 250.]
The idea is that we should bring all parts of our bodies, plus soul and spirit, to doing mitzvot. We do mitzvot with all that we are, physically and spiritually, and that is how we are candles which illuminate the world with divine light.
Through performing the mitzvot, we find aspects of the inner mishkan (where God dwells.)
Even more so, in those days when miracles occurred: God kept the candles kindled by way of a miracle. It was in this manner that chesed (the divine attribute of lovingkindness) was brought to Israel during the time of the Hasmoneans.
Performing mitzvot allows us to connect with our own internal mishkan (dwelling-place for God) even though the external mishkan (the Tabernacle, and later the Temple) has been destroyed. And this began to be true for Israel during the days of the Hasmoneans, when the lights miraculously remained kindled. The Sfat Emet seems to be suggesting that the children of Israel lacked oil on a physical level, but they also lacked a kind of kindle-ability on a spiritual level. When God performed the miracle of keeping the lights burning in the Temple, that miracle illumined the hearts of the children of Israel with divine lovingkindness, which made us able to be illumined even now.
Even now, the mitzvah of the lights of Chanukah helps us gain insight into all of the mitzvot. By way of this searching-with-candles which we perform when we light Chanukah candles, we can find the quality of the hidden Shekhinah and the hidden sanctuary.
The light of those candles (the lights kindled in the Temple in days of old) still shines to help us find what was hidden. We can still kindle, through the mitzvot and our awe and love, divine light which will help us find the place within where God dwells.
The heart of the matter of hiddenness is that it involves darkness, and we require candles in order to find, as was said above.
He's not only talking about spiritual darkness; he's also talking about this time of year -- the dark time, in the Northern hemisphere. There's a way in which we can only find light when we're in a dark place/time. Lighting a candle on a sunny day doesn't have much of an impact; lighting a candle in the darkness does.
The next part of the text relies on a fair bit of Hebrew wordplay and punnery. The Sfat Emet makes the point that Moshe prophesized wholly and was able to see clearly, whereas other prophets saw through a glass which didn't completely shine, a glass or prism which obscured some of the divinity behind it. (In the Christian Scriptures, this is "through a glass darkly.") [I'm not offering a translation of that paragraph, because I think it depends too much on references and resonances which are hard to translate.]
He goes on to say that Chanukah offers its own kind of insight. Chanukah is a time, he says, when the Shekhinah (divine presence) is illumined and finds a kind of holy rest. When you go into a dark place with a candle, you're illumining that place, though it's still also dark. There's a restfulness in the darkness, but also an illumination which changes the character of the dark. He goes on to say:
It is written "I will search out Jerusalem with candles" (Zephania 1:12), and through this quote, we can understand that there are aspects of the Temple which may be found in the present, through our searching. "There is no one seeking her out" (Jeremiah 30:17) suggests to us that she needs to be sought-out ["she" here being the Shekhinah, the immanent face of God.] When one does mitzvot with all of one's life-force, one can rouse the inner life-force which is the innermost internal point of purity.
In other words: there's an illumination of the candle of the soul, the deepest soul-point, through doing mitzvot with all of one's self -- body and spirit and soul.
We look into the innermost cavities [the chambers of the belly referenced in the Proverbs quote earlier], and through the power of inwardness we can find a hidden illumination of all of those chambers of the body.
Even in the most hidden and dark places, there is that divine illumination. Even deep within us, a light shines.
As it is written, "Make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within it/them" -- this is what it means for God to be dwelling within us, truly.
One should conduct oneself as though the Holy One were living inside one's very body. Inside one's kishkes, to use the Yiddish phrase! It's as though God is living in your kishkes, in your very innermost parts. That's the deepest meaning of the text from Exodus which says "Build Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within you" -- God dwells in us.
(By the way: the first and last part of this teaching can be found, in English and in Hebrew, in The Language of Truth, R' Art Green's translation of the Sfat Emet.)
This text is talking about mitzvot as tools for finding and illumining the Shekhinah within. God, it turns out, is not far away; God is right here, not only nearby but actually within us. When we do mitzvot with full intentionality -- using our whole bodies, our spirits, and our souls -- we light the internal candle which allows us to perceive how God is always already shining in and through us.
Chanukah is a time when we light literal candles, bringing more visible light into the world...which should serve to remind us that when we do mitzvot, we're bringing spiritual light to our own innermost parts, illumining the part of God which dwells within us. Chanukah is a festival of re-dedication, celebrating how the sanctuary of the Temple was purified and rededicated to divine service. If God dwells now within us, then it is the temples of our own hearts and souls which need to be cleansed and rededicated to serving the Source of All.