Hanukkah: Seeing Beyond the Surface
Why is Hanukkah called the holiday of vision?
A husband and wife are getting ready to go to sleep. The wife is ready to close her eyes but her husband is standing and staring at himself in the full-length mirror. “What’s the matter with you?” she says. Come to sleep already.”
He turns to her and says, “I am so depressed. All I see is a receding hairline, a growing gut, and wrinkles under my eyes and what hair I have left is grey. Tell me something positive, something uplifting so I can go to sleep.”
She thinks for a moment and says, “Well the good news is your vision is still 20/20.”
There is a very strong association between Hanukkah and the sense of sight, of seeing. Every night we sing each night of Hanukkah, “These candles are sacred; we don’t have permission to benefit from their light but their purpose is simply to be looked at.” Moreover, we have a unique law on Hanukkah. The Talmud tells us – and the Shulchan Aruch records – ha’roeh mevareich, one who can’t light for himself or herself and sees the candles of someone else nevertheless makes the second blessing of “Who has wrought miracles for our forefathers.” When I see someone put on tefillin, take a lulav, or blow shofar, I don’t make a blessing. Only on Hanukkah do I make a blessing when seeing someone else do the mitzvah. Why?
The Kedushas Levi, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichov, tells us that Hanukkah is the holiday of seeing. The different Jewish holidays correspond with our different senses. On Purim our hearing is heightened as we listen to the Megillah. On Pesach our sense of taste is sharpened when we eat matzah and marror. On Hanukkah, he says, we evaluate our sense of sight, testing how well we see.
Eyes Are a Liability
What kind of seeing are we honing? It is not our physical sense of sight. Indeed, in a sort of paradoxical way, our eyes are a liability. We often feel that “seeing is believing.” If I can perceive and observe it, it is true. If I can’t, it is not real. Following this rule, we run the risk of dismissing and disregarding the most precious truths and realities in our lives. There are ideas, feelings, thoughts and dreams that are authentic and genuine, despite the fact that they can’t be seen or observed.
Our Rabbis describe the Greek empire and Hellenist influence as choshech, darkness. In expounding on the opening verses of the creation story, the Midrash Rabbah says “darkness was on the face of the deep” – this refers to the Greek exile. Moreover, our Rabbis taught that darkening our eyes was the goal of our Greek oppressors.
Seeing Beyond the Surface
What is the difference between a room that is filled with darkness versus one filled with light? Is there any change to the room itself? Whether the light is on or off in the room, the furniture remains the same, the layout of the room, the placement of the door, and the height of the ceiling are a constant. What, then, is the difference between the light being on or off in my room – just my perception, my ability to identify and see the reality, the truth and that which was right before me all along. Hanukkah is about seeing things, people, ideas, and miracles that are really right in front of us, even though we may not be able to visibly see them.
George Orwell once wrote: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” One can live with their eyes open, perfect vision and the light on and still be cloaked in darkness. On the other hand it can be pitch black all around and yet a person can see with complete clarity. The Chashmonaim didn’t see their few numbers, weak army, and impossible task. They saw the mighty hand of God, they saw the obligation to fight, and they saw Divine protection that would accompany them.
Hanukkah is about lighting the candles and using them to harness our sight, not ophthalmically speaking, but our deep vision of what is true, precious, and dear. When we look at our spouses and children, do we see the amazing blessing of their presence in our lives or do we hear lots of noise, see rooms that need to be cleaned up, and a messy house? When we face a challenge do we see no way out or an opportunity to further lean on our Creator? There are truths all around us; it is up to us to decide what to look at and how to see.
Lighting Candles in Bergen-Belsen
In her Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, Professor Yaffa Eliach shared the incredible story of Hanukkah in Bergen-Belsen:
Hanukkah came to Bergen-Belsen. It was time to kindle the Hanukkah lights. A jug of oil was not to be found, no candle was in sight, and a menorah belonged to the distant past. Instead, a wooden clog, the shoe of one of the inmates, became a menorah, strings pulled from a concentration camp uniform, a wick, and the black camp shoe polish, pure oil.
Not far from the heaps of bodies, the living skeletons assembled to participate in the kindling of the Hanukkah lights. The Rabbi of Bluzhov lit the first light and chanted the first two blessings in his pleasant voice, and the festive melody was filled with sorrow and pain. When he was about to recite the third blessing, he stopped, turned his head, and looked around as if he were searching for something.
But immediately, he turned his face back to the quivering small lights and in a strong, reassuring, comforting voice, chanted the third blessing: “Blessed are Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, and has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.”
Among the people present at the kindling of the light was a Mr. Zamietchkowski, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Bund. He was a clever, sincere person with a passion for discussing matters of religion, faith and truth. As soon as the Rabbi of Bluzhov had finished the ceremony of kindling the lights, Zamiechkowski elbowed his way to the Rabbi and said, “Spira, you are a clever and honest person. I can understand your need to light Hanukkah candles in these wretched times. I can even understand the historical note of the second blessing, “Who wrought miracles for our Fathers in days of old, at this season.”
But the fact that you recited the third blessing is beyond me. How could you thank God and say “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, and hast preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season”? How could you say it when hundreds of dead Jewish bodies are literally lying within the shadows of the Chanukah lights, when thousands of living Jewish skeletons are walking around in camp, and millions more are being massacred? For this you are thankful to God? For this you praise the Lord? This you call “keeping us alive?”
“Zamietchkowski, you are a hundred percent right,” answered the Rabbi. “When I reached the third blessing, I also hesitated and asked myself, what should I do with this blessing? I turned my head in order to ask the Rabbi of Zaner and other distinguished Rabbis who were standing near me if indeed I might recite the blessing. But just as I was turning my head, I noticed that behind me a throng was standing, a large crowd of living Jews, their faces expressing faith, devotion, and deliberation as they were listening to the rite of the kindling of the Hanukkah lights.
I said to myself, if God has such a nation that at times like these, when during the lighting of the Hanukkah lights they see in front of them the heaps of bodies of their beloved fathers, brothers, and sons, and death is looking from every corner, if despite all that, they stand in throngs and with devotion listening to the Hanukkah blessing “Who performed miracles for our Fathers in days of old, at this season”; indeed I was blessed to see such a people with so much faith and fervor, then I am under a special obligation to recite the third blessing.”
Hanukkah – Seeing with 20/20 Vision
That night in Bergen-Belsen, Mr. Zamietchkowski only saw what lay before him, dead bodies and terrible suffering. The Rebbe also looked, but he saw another layer of truth that was equally accurate – that there was a gathering of people who maintained incredible faith despite the most horrific circumstances.
As we celebrate Hanukkah, let us remember that there are truths all around us not visible to the naked eye. Let us use the light of the Hanukkah candles to inspire us to see the truth with clarity and 20/20 vision.