Thursday, December 06, 2007

Not Quite 13 Ways of Looking At a Menorah (With Apologies to Wallace Stevens)

(I wrote this last year for Groovy Green)

1. The Shammash (this is the candle one uses to light all the others)

Among the snowy houses
There was only one
Candle lifted to light another.

The essential message of Chanukah is anti-assimilationist. The Jews were ordered to assimilate into pagan society, including eating pagan foods and worshipping pagan gods, and the Maccabees resisted. Their tiny and overmatched force won a long war against terrible opposition. It is a reminder, that every revolution starts with a "No," a refusal to bow down, to accept the loss of identity into the mass culture. We too can and must begin with a "No," or a series thereof, in which we decline to participate in the consumer culture and the destruction of justice.

The changes we are undertaking are a revolution. And our hope of transforming the world is precisely the same as that of the Maccabees - faint, and yet we must succeed, so we will.

2. The First Candle.

I said three brachot
On first nights, we begin again.

There are two traditional brachot, or blessings, for the Chanukah candles that are said every night. But on the first night, we add a third blessing, the schecheyanu. This prayer translates as "Thank You G-d for sustaining us and bringing us to this particular moment." It is a prayer that Jews say whenever they do something special for the first time in a long time - the first time they see flowers bloom, or celebrate a new holiday in the cycle, come together with family they have been parted with or put on a new item of clothing. It is reminder that life is cyclical and seasonal, and that this is our natural state.

We are supposed to experience joy and pleasure when new things come to us, and then put them aside, until they come again in their own time and season. It is easy to forget in our society that cyclical life is what creates much of our joy. It is no pleasure worthy of G-d or delight to eat strawberries when you can have them every day. There is no way to seperate feasts from ordinary days if you eat each day the way our ancestors feasted. It is not loss to live simply and in tune with the seasons, but a gain.

3. Second Candle

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman igniting fire
Are one.

In our prayers, Jews not thank G-d for the light itself, but for giving us the job of lighting the candles ourselves. We are grateful for being given an act, a route to meaning, a way of doing good and serving another. I do not expect all (or even most) of those who read this to be Jews or even theists, but this is worth considering even if you aren't.

Perhaps we should be more grateful for honorable work, for the chance to do good by our own hands. It isn't that G-d didn't make the light, it is that G-d was generous enough to share the labor of creation with us. In the stories, we are made in G-d's image, and so how could we not find satisfaction in creation? Whether you believe that or not, it says something that deep in our collective narrative is our need to do something that matters, that creates something. In the end, everything we create for ourselves, instead of buying, strengthens us, if you will, makes us more or more like G-d.

4. Third candle

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The child singing
Or the silence after.

Even if you don't celebrate Christmas, it is easy to get caught up in the orgy of buying and spending. One of the arguments against doing so for us is that we've tried very hard not to overstimulate our kids. We want to keep the focus on the singing, and praying, friendships and special foods, and generally, we do. When we add too much more, it often ends with a child in tears or conflicts, because as nice as things are, too much is simply too much.

The difference between children and adults, is that children often know when enough is enough, and simply stop going forward. We adults often don't know when to stop. We keep raising the bar to what makes things "special" when we should be lowering it. Instead of more gifts, and more events and special foods and things, perhaps we should ask ourselves "if the ritual, and the beauty of it, and our time with each other isn't enough, why not? How have we failed?"

Fourth Candle

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know,too,
That Light is involved
In what I know.

Why do I insist on bringing G-d into this at all? Why not simply talk about how to dip your own candles, or why we shouldn't buy giant plastic menorahs? I bring G-d in because G-d among other things represents the limits of our knowledge, the things that exceed our grasp no matter how hard we reach. There are plenty of other good ways to articulate that we are not omniescient, and I don't assume mine has priority over other viewpoints. But however we come to the notion of limits, particularly to the notion that what we do always, always has unintended consequences, often harmful, we must begin to recognize it as a central part of human actions.

Jews have the concept of pe'ah, the marginal parts that are the transition between the self and G-d - the hair that some Jews leave uncut, the margins of the field we are commanded to leave for the poor to glean - all derive from this same root concept, that the edgees of ourselves are not solely our own, and our own interests are not always paramount there. Perhaps we need a secular equivalent, one that would enable us to grasp the inevitability of cost to others when we are excited by this new thing or another. Perhaps we need a secular theology of limits, one in which we see the spaces where our interests conflict with one another not as sites of trouble, but as a place for us to be greater than we are.

6. Fifth Candle

When the candles burn down and flicker
The light pools
In intersecting circles with the light
From my neighbor's tree.

If anti-assimilationism is the central message of the history of Chanukah, we should remember that we are not the only people who celebrate the restoration of the light. If there is a single work to be done in the next decade, it is to build community in every sense of the word. We need not assimilate, in fact, we should not, because we cannot afford to lose any more diversity.

But we cannot close the doors on one another. It is always easier to build community with people who are like you, with the same values and the same ideas, maybe people from the same family, or with the same experiences, and there is nothing wrong with that. But we have lived the last decades as though the people we cannot see, the people downstream from us, out of sight or in other nations, do not matter. So at the same time that we strengthen the ties with those who are like us, we absolutely must strive to create a new recognition of the other, a new way of connecting, of at a minimum, doing no harm, and just possibly, joining some of our pools of light.

7. Sixth Candle

He rode over the coutryside
In a mighty coach
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook the shadow of his equipage
For darkness.

The original form of this poem was written before the invention of the SUV ;-). The SUV, is, among other things, a graphic symbol of our fears - we buy them in part because they are big, and seem (however falsely) to be secure, and to make us powerful when we are doing a scary thing, racing metal machines at each other at high speeds. The SUV is a bad guy, the public face of greed for many environmentalists, but it is also an easy target that masks some basic truths.

Push all of us environmentalists hard enough and you'll find the things we are not willing to give up, even though they are not unadulterated goods. We aren't willing to give up our job serving some appalling corporation or our investments in the same, because doing so would mean giving up our insurance or hope of retirement. We aren't willing to let go of our appliances because we're afraid we couldn't manage without them. We are not willing to have fewer children, because we fear we might be alone someday. We are all afraid that of the dark, and sometimes the dark is cast by the shadow of our equipage, the literal and metaphorical stuff we carry around with us. Let us remember, that even the driver of the SUV is often merely afraid - just like us. So there is hope.

8. 7th Candle

The candles are flickering.
The latkes must be frying.

One of the traditional festival foods of Chanukah is the latke. It is a simple enough concoction - shredded potatoes, eggs, salt, onion, fried in copious oil. For poor Jews in the northern hemisphere, they were fancy enough to be celebratory (all that oil to remind us of the miracle of the lamp, and eggs that must have been carefully saved up since the hens laid only little in the dark season), but simple enough to be accessible even for those who had little to spare.

In the same sense, the traditional food of the sabbath was sweet bread, rather than a large roasted animal. It was not always possible to have meat, but one hoped that everyone could have bread, and that the bread could be especially soft and sweet. Many Jews keep kosher, which means we seperate milk and meat, and after eating meat, we wait a while before eating milk. It was commanded that our sabbath bread must always be pareve (that is, containing neither meat nor milk, and thus edible by anyone), lest an unexpected guest who had just eaten a meat meal arrive at our dairy sabbath and not be able to partake. No one, under any circumstances, must be denied access to the basic staple food of our culture, Jewish law tells us. The same principle holds in our culture. We must find a way to make access to staple foods a basic and universal right. We must ensure that no one is ever excluded from our table.

9. 8th Candle

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow
The menorah sat On the windowsill

The deepest miracle of Chanukah is not the miracle of the oil, or the miracle that a small force overpowered a great one. Nor is it even the miracle of the return of the sun cycle or our power to make light in darkness. Or rather it is all those things. But it is also something else.

At passover, in the spring, we sing the prayer, "Dayenu" which means "it would have been enough." We tell ourselves that it was a wonderful miracle that G-d led us out of Egypt, but it would have been enough if he had not, if he had only given us the Sabbath, or the Torah, or nothing at all. And too, here is the real miracle of Chanukah. It would have been enough if the Maccabees had only resisted, but not succeeded. We would have endured, and gone on, and resisted again and again for as long as it took. It would have been enough, had the oil in the temple menorah lasted only the one day we could have expected. We would have prayed imperfectly, and our prayers would have been heard. It would have been enough, had we never discovered the modern miracle of the oil, and had we never created our industrialized society. We had enough.

I do not know if we still have enough, or if, in our rush to delight in our modern miracle we have caused such harm to the earth we were given that we cannot restore it. But as things change, and we concentrate on what is now lost, let us not forget that it is not the miracle of the oil that mattered most, but the ordinary miracle of sufficiency. It would have been enough had the sun only returned, and with it, the spring. But we were also granted the opportunity to light the candle, to sing the hymn, to stand in the circle, to meditate, to reach out to the other, to share a meal, to give a gift, to do good work and to praise our gifts. In spite of the darkness, may it be enough.

Happy Chanukah Everyone!!!



Tameson O'Brien said...

Why do you omit God's O?. It's his name sing it loud.

jewishfarmer said...

It is a Jewish religious tradition not to use any of G-d's names in transitory genres, like a magazine or the internet, where people might not treat it respectfully. There's a case to be made against this, since G-d isn't really G-d's name at all, but it is something of a habit among many Jews, including me.

But it has nothing to do about not wanting to praise G-d publically. Just one of the customs of my faith.


Marnie said...

Happy Chanukah, Sharon.

Wendy said...

Thank you for sharing that story. I think it wonderful that you know not only the practice, but also the meaning behind your tradition.

I see so many people who do things, simply because that's what's done, without any inkling as to why, and often, when they try to explain it, it doesn't quite fit - like many contemporary explanations of why we have a sparkling fir tree in our living rooms during this season, or what painted eggs mean in the context of Easter.

Which is a good point - simply, we need to, as a society, stop doing things because that's what's done, and take a bit to think about why.

emily said...

Sharon, I'd never seen or heard any of those prayers before. Thanks.

I am posting with a totally unrelated question, though, because I think you or your readers may have an answer. I received (junk?) mail from an outfit called "Co-op America". Have you heard of them? They say they are "a unique nonprofit organization that links conscientious consumers like you and me with socially and environmentally responsible businesses--in a nationwide green marketplace." Apparently, they can list 2,500 business who are acceptable. It sounds nice, but I'm skeptical, and I don't want to sign up for their "greenpages" only to receive a flood of preventable junk mail! What do you think? I'm not aware of any other way to find out about options in my area, so I'm tempted to try them out. Thanks ahead of time!

I have links to websites called "Local Harvest" and the "Eat Well Guide" that directed me to the local butcher's--where the meat really is better in quality and taste, and is not prepackaged--but many of their products are shipped from 100s of miles away. So, I'm not sure what info sources I can really use. There are, for example, farmers at our local farmer's market who sell their own meat and eggs, but they are not listed anywhere. I'm not averse to finding info on my own, but I wonder if I'm missing something.

Patty said...

That was beautiful, Sharon. I never heard those prayers either.

It seems as though we all could do with more remembering our Creator and emulating him, and less thinking of what we're going to get.

Heather G said...

Thanks for posting this Sharon. Absolutely lovely.

On Co-op America, they seem like a pretty good organization, but if you don't want paper, you can go look at the resources online at their web site for free.

Anonymous said...

Sharon (or anyone else), could you please recommend introductory reading on Jewish faith? Whenever you speak of issues of faith and of the meaning of Jewish rituals, beliefs or practices (e.g. Tikkun Olam, the Dayenu prayer), it resonates with me. I have basic knowledge of the "Old Testament" and Jewish history, but would like to learn more. Thank you.

Happy holidays to your family.

mercuria said...

Simply gorgeous, Sharon, thank you. I had not been aware of those verses before, either. It's funny--I'm a christian, and your post has created in me the only contemplative feelings I've felt yet this Christmas season.

Anonymous said...

Thankyou for sharing.
(found you through Helwen)

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Megan said...

Dayenu. I enjoyed this way of thinking about Hanukkah. Thank you.

BoysMom said...

This was beautiful, Sharon, thank you.
It brings back memories of visiting Jewish friends at Hannukah as a very small child.

Dan said...

This is a most beautiful post, but some readers seem to have the impression the verses are some sort of traditional prayers. Sharon did title her piece "With Apologies to Wallace Stevens." Sharon has done a quite extraordinary job of paraphrasing Stevens' poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," published in his first collection "Harmonium" in 1923. It is remarkable how you, Sharon, have so artfully transformed several of the original verses into your own expression of the meaning of Chanukah.

When I first saw this post, I called out to my wife, "Jan, do you know what a Shammash is?" Incredibly, she had been immersed in things Chanukah for several days in the process of writing a sermon for her Unitarian-Universalist congregation here in Massachusetts. I showed her Sharon's blog post, and it ended up playing a prominent part in her sermon, to be given tomorrow morning.

It's my opinion that Jan's sermons are as wonderful as Sharon's posts, but of course I love her dearly.

Blessings to all.

Anonymous said...

This is lovely :-) In connection to your paragraph about SUVs, I think there's an important reminder in the original Hannukah narrative in that many of the "enemy" in this conflict weren't just the oppressive evil government, but were the hellenized Jews. In this case, we've all assimilated, so we can't afford to further alienate other people who aren't as aware of the problem by putting ourselves on a pedestal.

Anonymous looking for reading references -- as someone else learning about Judaism as an outsider, I highly recommend "Essential Judaism", by George Robinson. It's a bit of an Enormous Tome, but has a very readable overview of pretty much everything. "The Synagogue Survival Kit" by Jordan Wagner is a really detailed introduction to the worship service, and has entertainingly random Star Trek references in the footnotes. Really though, your best option is to find or borrow an observantly Jewish friend and ask lots of questions.

cpgarden said...

Thank you, Sharon,

For the additional layers in the celebration of Chanukah.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely lovely poem and story. I wrote a kids book in 1985 still reaching kids around the country titled "Bubbie and Zadie Come to My House" and it's about lighting the candles for Hannukah. You can read it online for free at

the book went out of print in 1995, but i found a new publisher last year and he put out new edition for 2007.

Your post is absolutely amazing, wonderful thinking. you should make it into a little chapbook or maybe a separate stand alone website.

love it

happy 2008, i mean 5766, i mean year 4 million 008


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