Light the candles with mindfulness
November 30th, 2009
Neil Farber, M.D.
Lighting the Chanukah menorah is supposed to remind us of long-lasting oil, our restored religious freedom, the dangers of total assimilation and our own place in a miracle. Unfortunately, it rarely does.
We are more involved in counting the number of candles than we are on the deeper meaning of what we are doing. Candle lighting, especially on Chanukah, has become a mindless activity. “Let’s finish lighting the candles quickly so that we can have enough time to open the presents.”
On Passover when we recount the story of the slaves in Egypt and tell our children, “It is because of what G-d did for me….” We personalize the Exodus, which makes us engaged and involved. We should similarly personalize the rededication. Were we one of the Hellenistic Jews, how would we have acted?
Why does lighting candles become mindless? We light lots of candles for all kinds of occasions, religious and secular. The more we are involved in repetitive activities, the more that we perform them without thinking.
Chanukah has sadly become for many the Jewish Christmas. Our children, following our lead, focus on decorations and presents. We complain about losing our children to intermarriage but we encourage this behavior by Christianizing our own holidays; making them more acceptable and seemingly more fun, while ignoring their deeper meanings.
Each night of Chanukah, we light one more candle than we did the night before, creating more light each successive night. As Jews we also need to appreciate how this illumination is symbolic of our journey toward Jewish values and a renewal and rededication to our faith.
Candle lighting has long been a part of spiritual practices. The warm flame of the candle has the ability to connect with our souls. Indeed, Proverbs 20:27 tells us that “The soul of man is a candle of G-d.” It infuses spirituality throughout the body, if we let it.
Mindfulness is the act of being fully aware and engaged in the present. When we say “mindfulness,” most people think of Buddhism. Jewish Buddhists or Jubus represent a large percentage of American Buddhists.
In college, I was also one of them, as was my roommate and several of my classmates. We were looking for answers; Judaism had lots of questions. We were looking for something that we could apply to our lives today; Judaism had lots of antiquated stories to which we had difficulty relating.
It wasn’t until years later that I found out that mindfulness is also an important facet of Judaism. In Hebrew we call this kavannah — doing something with intent, focus and purpose, being fully engaged.
We don’t need to turn to other religions to teach us this. Rather, we need to educate ourselves and our children about the beauty of this practice within Judaism.
This is not some new-age mystical nonsense. Scientific research has shown that the act of being mindful enhances our appreciation, enjoyment, creativity and both mental and physical health.
Whether we are praying, studying, reading, working or spending time with friends or family, we should do it with kavannah — be present and engaged.
Before we light the Chanukah candles this year, I urge you to take a quieting breath and focus your intention. Be a mindful kindler. Be fully aware of the process and as you focus on the dancing flames and the dazzling colors, visualize the importance of the rededication of the Temple, the importance of light — created on the first day of creation.
Our ancient teacher, Hillel said that the reason for lighting candles was “to promote sanctity.” This requires focus and concentration and a mindful appreciation of the act of lighting.
Have each member of your family choose a candle (or two) and when they light each candle, talk about a blessing in their lives. How has G-d brought light into our world? What miracles have they experienced that they want to share? What are you thankful for? What kinds of blessings in disguise have you found in your life?
Relate the Maccabi revolt and the Jewish Assimilation to what is going on in the world today. Make the holiday and the experience meaningful. Make it a Chanukah that your children will remember for more than the new iPod.
You can create an experience that is uplifting and inspiring. Bring the lighting of the menorah out of an esoteric past and place it brightly into our present focus. May our lighting of the Chanukah candles be with kavanah and symbolize the first day of our rededication to our family, friends and faith.
Neil Farber, M.D., is a pediatric anesthesiologist in Milwaukee. He is a member of the International Positive Psychology Association, a lecturer and researcher, and founder of the Dynamic Health & Wellness Institute in Milwaukee.