Starlight and menorah light: Three Hanukkah teachings about holy darkness

Standing under the Milky Way/ public domain (goodfreephotos.com)
Standing under the Milky Way/ public domain (goodfreephotos.com)

I. There’s a custom to gaze at the menorah, to receive its light as the purest of gifts. Gazing at the Hanukkah candles or oil lamps becomes a kind of fixing for the eyes, a training in how to see. Gaze at the candles well, and your eyes get retuned.

The same thing can happen when you gaze at the heavens. Several springs ago, when Mars was coming the closest it had been to Earth in a decade, I started paying attention to what was up there, and I began learning basic things, like how to tell a planet from a star. It’s simple: a planet is a steady, unwavering, untwinkling point of light, while a star twinkles.

Mars’s steady and growing brightness that May inspired me to buy my first telescope in June. It turns out that you have to retune your eyes and your mind to see through a telescope. The first time I saw Jupiter’s moons, I wondered if I was “seeing things”—maybe those dots were just reflections of light in the lens. I moved my eye closer and farther away from the eyepiece to find the spot where the image was brightest and most in-focus, to make sure of what I was seeing.

To see Jupiter’s belts, you have to look even harder, more intently. It took me a few days before I understood how to see them.

Like gazing at the menorah, looking through a telescope can also be a kind of fixing for the eyes, a tikkun that opens up a person to see not just images but worlds.

There’s a prayer about how to see that is traditionally recited after lighting a chanukiyah or menorah. It goes, “Hanerot halalu kodesh heim” – “These candles are holy” and continues, “and we are not free to use them, but only to see them…” Hanerot Halalu defines our relation to holiness as “seeing without using.” It is not the light from the flames, but our way of seeing them, that needs to be pure. Seeing becomes an act of grace and a gift we give, instead of a step towards what we can take.

Keeping the candles holy is why we have the shamash. Reading Hanerot Halalu, or Maoz Tzur, or spinning a dreidl by the light of the menorah is using the light to see something. So we imagine we are using the light from the shamash to read by, not the light of the other flames.

Hanerot Halalu further explains that we only see the candles “in order to give thanks to Your name for Your miracles, Your salvation, and Your wonders.” Not just the miracle and wonder of Hanukkah, but all miracles. How does our seeing the lights without using them to see something else lead to becoming aware of miracle and wonder and giving thanks?

It’s not hard to understand if you look at the stars in a place where the sky is dark. People almost instinctively ask, how can we be so blessed to live under such an endless expanse of beauty? As Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us, wonder or radical amazement leads to appreciation of the divine.

Pleiades star cluster – Northern Lights Graffiti (cc) on flickr

What I realized thinking about this is that gazing at the stars, even without a telescope, can also retune our eyes. A clear and dark night sky is full of texture, feeding our eyes with so many magnitudes and hues of stars, bright to faint, red or yellow or blue, while feeding our minds with awareness that there are so many more stars, beyond what the eye can see. Stargazing teaches us to peer into the depth of the darkness that surrounds the stars, to understand that what is invisible is so much vaster than what is visible. Feeding our eyes fills our hearts with wonder, and hearts full of wonder overflow with gratitude.

Just so, wonder comes to us when we gaze at the menorah lights against the backdrop of the darkest nights of the year. And the very darkest night is not winter solstice, the year’s longest night, but the new moon close to solstice, which is the seventh night of Hanukkah. Beyond the visible miracle of the flames that are lit, or the oil that stayed lit in ancient times, there is the miracle of the darkness. The small steady flames of the menorah are a tikkun, a healing for our vision, because they teach us to see both miracles. (On savoring the miracle of darkness, read this.)

II. Abraham saw the innumerable stars, and understood God’s plan (Gen 15:5). We can see them and feel a sense of miracle and gratitude. But you can’t see so much when light pollution flattens the field of stars to just the brightest ones. In our world, where light pollution is growing worse and worse, billions of people are robbed of the experience of simply seeing the stars. We are literally “banishing the darkness.”

Spain and Portugal from space/ NASA public domain

That’s also something people like to say about Hanukkah: “We have come to banish darkness” Ba’nu choshekh l’garesh – with our little menorah candles! They may just be repeating the popular song, but banishing darkness has never been what Hanukkah is about (as I wrote in my Times of Israel column, Ba’nu Choshekh L’kadesh, two years ago).

The flames from the menorah are like little seeds of light, not torches. Jewish law even says that the flames must be separate and can’t even appear to come together “like a torch” (Shulchan Arukh, O.Ch. 661:4, Rema). When we perseverate about dispelling and banishing the dark, we are teaching ourselves to ignore the beauty of the night, which is the only realm our little seeds of flame can thrive in.

Just so, we blind ourselves to night’s depth, its texture, when we fill our skies with stray light.

In the Industrial and post-Industrial Age, the majority of Jews live in places where they can never see more than a handful of stars. Just try seeing the stars in Jerusalem, or in New York. If God had asked Abraham to look toward the heavens and count the stars on a typical New York night, it would have made for a very sad covenant.

Florida from space/ NASA public domain

Yet obliterating the night is what we are doing the world over – and it’s getting worse, not better, even in smaller towns, because of the new wave of LED streetlights. LEDs are hundreds of times more concentrated and intense at their source, making them more painful to look at than the brightest traditional streetlamps, and they can mimic daylight.

Where I live in western Massachusetts, you could frequently see the Milky Way, if just barely. But last year, Northampton installed LED streetlamps in place of sodium vapor lamps, in order to save on electricity. Now, on most nights except the clearest, their bluer color drowns out the Milky Way.

We still have it better than most small cities, where they can’t ever see the Milky Way, where their new LED lights are even brighter and bluer, and drown out all of the fainter stars. (And brighter lights do not mean safer streets.) But the worst lights do more than that. They can change night into hormonal day, and overwhelm our senses and our pineal gland (which is our real third eye), suppressing the secretion of the melatonin we all need to drive our sleeping and waking. One consequence is that the worst lights can actually increase the incidence of breast cancer and some other cancers.

Those are the kind of lights they have in Greenfield, MA, less than half an hour from where I live, and in Boston. But Northampton doesn’t have the worst lights. Instead, it has the worst that still fall within the recommended allowances of the American Medical Association (shielded above 80 degrees, with a color temperature of 3000 K, giving them a slightly yellow tinge), so maybe we aren’t increasing our cancer risks. But we don’t know for sure.

Everywhere the new LED lights are installed, people have become guinea pigs. As has the wildlife around and above us, whose behavior and flight patterns, hunting and hiding, are so much more dependent on the rhythms of light and dark than we allow ourselves to be. From space, we can see that more and more of the planet is being drawn into this massive experiment. The sad part is, switching to LED’s the right way (lower color temperature, fewer bulbs, lower setting, and better shielding) can actually improve the darkness of the sky substantially, even in bigger cities.

According to midrash, when the people came to Moses asking to understand God’s glory, Moses said, “You can understand it from the heavens. It’s like if a person wanted to see the glory of a king, and he entered the king’s country and saw a tapestry vilon spread over the entrance to the country, with jewels and pearls fixed in it, and he could not move his eyes from resting upon it…” (Sifrey Devarim piska 355).

But the whole analogy falls flat if you don’t live night by night with the stars, as our ancestors did, if you can’t see them. And it’s not just an analogy. We stop knowing God’s glory when we cover up the diversity of the heavens, just as we do when we destroy the diversity of the Earth.

Let us dedicate ourselves to respecting and protecting the darkness when we light our chanukiyot.

III. The Zohar says that the very reason why human beings can speak is that we lift our heads to see the stars (Midrash Hane`elam 10d). But it’s just as true that we can speak because we lift our hands to light the candles of the menorah, to make our own light to accompany the dark. We need the light we create, and the light created long before we were created, both embedded in the dark, to illuminate our destiny on this planet, spinning like a dreidl, as Rebbe Nachman taught, through a universe full of light, and of darkness.

My first telescope was from Astronomy Without Borders, a nonprofit that donates telescopes to communities around the world – a telescope is donated for every one purchased. More Hanukkah teachings from me can be found on neohasid.org, including how to make an ice menorah! Finally, all my writings about darkness always have one root in the teachings of Rabbi Fern Feldman, some of which you can read here and here.

About the Author
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a liturgist well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting. David is also an avid dancer.
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