“Every divine path is composed of love and truth.” —Psalm 25:10
During Hanukkah of 2015, I was one of the teachers, along with Rabbis Rachel Cowan and Sheila Peltz Weinberg, at a Jewish mindfulness meditation retreat at the Garrison Institute. Each evening, as the Meditation Hall darkened with the setting of the winter sun, everyone would join together at the front of the hall to light our hannukiyot (Hanukkah menorahs/ candelabrum). In the context of the deep silence of the retreat, the shimmer of the candles’ flames seemed especially bright.
Together, we lit the candles and sat as we watched them burn down. This is an ancient Jewish practice, alluded to in a traditional prayer recited on Hanukkah, “For all eight days of Hanukkah, these candles are holy. One is not permitted to use them for any reason—only to look at them.” (Ha-Nerot Hallalu.) Sitting in that open, still Meditation Hall at the Institute, I experienced this prayer on a whole new level.
I sat quite close to the large sand-filled trays that held the hannukiyot, so close that I could feel the heat of the candles on the skin of my face. As I sat in the warmth of the candles, I was also aware that the candles’ light illuminated much of the darkness of the hall. This awareness reminded me of a core teaching of our practice: that ours is a practice of chesed and emet (love and truth). The Hanukkah candles represent these two primary sensibilities in our practice. The illumination corresponds to the quality of emet/truth or honest looking. We witness and try to look as honestly as possible at the ever-unfolding truths of our lives. And we don’t merely observe our experience coldly and dispassionately, but we train in orienting ourselves towards our lives and world with a warmth of heart—this corresponds to the quality of chesed/love.
During those moments at the Institute, I came to enter more deeply into my own religious and spiritual tradition. The quality and depth of the silence at the Institute has held me—and so many others. It has helped us come home to who we are.
The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Lieb Alter of Ger, 1847-1905), a great Hasidic teacher, taught that lighting the hannukiya during Hanukkah reminds us of how in ancient days, when people would go on pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, they would witness the illumination of the menorah that was in the Temple. When they would leave the Temple, they would be “laden with blessings” and would then carry those blessings with them wherever they would go. I am grateful to have spiritual castles like the Garrison Institute, places that provide strong containers for practice. These places help us go as deeply as possible into the bright and warm heart of our lives. When we leave places like the Institute, we leave “laden with blessings”—with hearts filled with the blessings of our practice, ready to bring those gifts out into a world that is in great need for them.
Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell is Program Director at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.