A Meditation for the Eighth Night of Chanukah

For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people (Isaiah 60:2) 

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.(Isaiah 9:2)

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Almost every day of Chanukah this year we have learned of horrific atrocities committed across the globe in Sydney, Peshawar, Iraq, Syria; the terrorising of civilians, the murder of innocents, the degradation and enslavement of women.  The one element that binds these acts together is that they are committed in the name of God and religion. People of pure faith are repulsed not just by the reprehensible actions committed by Islamist fundamentalists but by the fact that they defile faith itself by appropriating sacred language and symbols  to serve their nefarious and profane objectives.

Long ago the Rabbis were aware of just how destructive religion and religious symbols can be when aligned to nationalism, power and personal gain. The Hasmonean family that featured so prominently in the Chanukah story as heroes and liberators, quickly descended into corruption and violence while masquerading behind the pious symbols of the priesthood. For this reason the Talmudic rabbis, when framing the festival of Chanukah, deliberately sidelined the great Hasmonean military victories choosing instead to focus on the miracle of the pure oil. They had seen what happens when faith is aligned with power and deliberately drew attention away from this aspect of Chanukah. Faith, they seem to be saying, is represented not in the firestorm of military conquest but rather in a silent flame lit in purity and contemplated with humility.

Perhaps this is why Jewish law insists that one may not derive any personal benefit from the light shed by the Chanukah flames. In the liturgical passage customarily sung immediately after lighting the Menorah we say of the Chanukah flames:

And we are not permitted
To make any other use of them,
But to look at them,
That we may give thanks and praise to Your great name

To make personal use of the sacred flames even for something as innocuous as reading by their light is to betray the sacred. Religion must never be appropriated for our own personal needs. Pure faith, like the stance we assume before the Chanukah lights, demands silence, awe, humility and gratitude. Murder in the name of religion is the extreme end of a spectrum that begins with infringing on the sacred by bending it to our own needs.

As we celebrate the last night of Chanukah and hope of shedding some light in our dark world we would do well to contemplate the purity of our faith. Is it gentle or aggressive?  Humble or arrogant? Does it cause us to look up to others or look down on them? Does it lead to greater love and tolerance or hatred and intolerance? Does it make our world bigger or smaller? Are we using religion to further our own agendas; be they personal, social or national or are we standing in silence and awe  before the sacred?

Faith born of humility can transform our world for the better.  Like the flickering flames of the Menorah, such faith enables us to see God’s world and all that is in it in a softer, gentler and more flattering light.

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The Limits of Language: A Rosh Hashanah Meditation

blowing of the shofarThe highlight of tomorrow’s service and the central ritual of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the Shofar. Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon famously listed ten different reasons for this Mitzvah. These range from the trumpet-like sound invoking God’s coronation, to the more human sounds of sobbing or crying apparent in the Shofar’s plain notes which are the result of the deep introspection undertaken on this day.

The Hasidic masters build on the theme of crying and explain that the deepest form of human expression transcends language. The call of the Shofar then represents the deep inner call of the human soul calling out to God as the Psalmist put it: “deep calling unto deep.” The idea is that on Rosh Hashanah we gain access to, and so are able to express, our soul’s deepest yearning for God and its expression as captured in the sobbing of the Shofar, is wordless.

This powerful idea always resonated with me but it was given particular poignancy in 1988 when as an eighteen year old Yeshiva student I had the privilege of spending Rosh Hashanah in Crown Heights and praying with the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory.

It was his custom to blow the shofar for the first set of thirty notes while another Ba’al Toke’ah sounded the notes during Musaph. I can recall the scene as though it were yesterday. I stood in a packed synagogue amongst thousands of Chassidim. One could hear a pin drop as the Rebbe ascended the Bimah and put the Shofar to his lips. The sound that emerged was the most haunting I had ever heard or heard since. His notes were not a triumphant blast but an ethereal sound that one had to strain to hear. If there was such a thing as a sobbing soul it would sound like this. To this day I yearn to hear such soulful notes on Rosh Hashanah and I find the self-confident, clarion blasts of most Shofar blowers to be deeply discordant and I am invariably disappointed.

While the Hasidic masters emphasised the wordless nature of the soul’s longing, that is to say the soul’s reaching out, something I heard the other day gave rise to a thought that perhaps the non-language of the Shofar also travels in the opposite direction. That somehow it reaches in to the soul transforming our perception of reality.

I was listening to Radio 4 in the car on Thursday night and the Jamaican poet and writer Kei Miller was talking about how language shapes one’s perception of reality. As an example he took the word “scroop” which denotes a scrapping or rustling sound of material sweeping along the floor. “How,” he asked, “can you hear your bride’s dress as she walks towards you if you don’t know the word scroop?”

I wonder if the sound of the Shofar is meant to take us back to a primal, pre-language state on Rosh Hashanah. So much of what we experience in life is mediated through the words we routinely use that it becomes almost impossible to experience reality in new ways, to see the world through fresh eyes, to genuinely be surprised, to experience awe, wonder and gratitude. By using the word “sunrise” to capture the moment when night gives way to day we objectify, capture and contain an extraordinary moment, and in that containment we impoverish it. We create a common currency for what otherwise might be an intensely powerful subjective experience.

The same is true with human interactions. When we meet a person for the first time we immediately – and subconsciously –  try to fit them into our existing vocabulary (the person is kind, clever, insincere or arrogant) but in doing so we limit our own ability to be truly open to what could be an entirely new perception of another human being.

This can also  be true in our relationship with God. We inherit a rich metaphorical vocabulary which we invoke when thinking about, and when praying to God. Yet this vocabulary is by definition severely limited.  The notion that God can be captured in terms like Father or King becomes problematic if those become the only terms in which we can conceive of the infinite Creator.

Language is useful to help us make sense of our reality but it can also severely limit our perception of reality and inhibit fresh perspectives.

So could the Shofar, that primal pre-language cry, be telling us to suspend, at least for a crucial moment, our language-shaped reality?  Could it be leading us through the threshold to a renewed reality? Is it a coincidence that the Shofar is sounded on the same day that Adam and Eve were created? When on that first day of human life Adam names all the animals using his God given ability of language to shape and so to experience his new reality?

Could the Shofar be telling us that in order to experience the world anew, we need to suspend our old vocabulary for only then can we begin to fashion a new vocabulary and thereby form a new reality, a new existence, a new world?

I believe the Shofar points us in this direction. It urges us to step beyond the comfortable signposts of language, if just for a moment, so that we can encounter reality starkly without reference to pre-existing frameworks. In the moment we transcend language we plant the seed that will give rise to new language enabling us to enrich our perception of reality, deepen our relationships with others and open up new possibilities in our quest to connect with the infinite Creator.