Going the Distance

Dream.  Collect the vision in your mind of something far away.  Reach for it with your soul. Reach for it with a longing for a thing that is very, very far away but still somehow close enough to touch.  That desire and hope for what is just barely feasibly in your reach is the true meaning of Chanukah.

Maybe it’s a love that seems beyond you.  Maybe it’s a challenge that has almost defeated you, but you can still see your way beyond it.  It could be money, fame, spiritual desire or a thirst to end loneliness. It could be absolutely anything, but it must be far away and it must touch you enough for you to feel that it is somehow still connected to you.

I know this is not how we’re used to thinking about these eight days, but when I look a little deeper I feel it is unavoidable.  Every Jewish holiday has depth and is relevant to us in a way that I think we are not used to thinking about. Chanukah’s hidden message is to long for something so deeply and so completely that we are intimately bound to this thing and burn brighter for it for every day of this holiday. Here’s why:

All that we know about Chanukah is the tradition and observances that were handed down from generation to generation.  Chanukah is not like any other Jewish holiday or observance. It is not like any fast day. Those are all mentioned explicitly in the words of Prophets or in the Torah Itself.  It is not like any Biblical holiday (of course), because long after the period of the Torah or of Prophets. It is not even like Purim, because Purim has a canonized scripture : The Book of Esther.  Chanukah has no canonized book, and all that is written about it is outside scripture. It is apocryphal at best. Chanukah is the holiday with the most deeply hidden sources, but it has become so remarkably widely practiced.  Here’s what we know and how it all points to the same theme : long for something far away, reach for it, and let it burn inside you until it glows.

Like virtually all of Jewish practice, the language of Hebrew is almost essential if you want to understand the practice.  You definitely don’t need to be fluent, but you need to know enough to see the how the uniqueness of the words reflect the uniqueness of the practice. In the case of Chanukah, you must understand the meaning and significance of the word “SHAHM”, the Hebrew word for “over there” and “POH” the Hebrew word for “here”.  Chanukah is the celebration of the victory of those who fought with a vision for what is “over there” against those who only saw what was “here”.

Chanukah is holiday that celebrates how a small band of rebels (the Chashmonaim) fought off the mighty great army.  It tells how the survivors of this attack found a small vial of ritually pure oil (shemen), and how that oil should have lasted for one day but instead lasted for eight (shemoneh).  All of these Hebrew words are based on the Hebrew root word pronounced SHAHM : ChaSHMonaim; SHEMen and SHEMoneh. The Hebrew word SHAHM means “there”: something off in the distance.   The Hebrew word for sky is “SHAMayim”. Incidentally, SHAMayim is also the Hebrew word for Heaven.

The opposite of “SHAM” (there) is “POH” (here). The antonyms “POH” (here) and “SHAHM” (there) are also essential to understanding Chanukah.   To understand how Chanukah is the battle between “here” and “there”, look at Breishis (Genesis) 8:18. In that verse, the Torah lists the three sons of Noah :

  • Shem (from the root SHAHM : there)
  • JaPHEth (from the root POH : here )
  • Hahm

In Breishis 10:2, the Torah writes that JaPHEth (“here”) is the father of Javan (the Hebrew name for Greece).  In Breishis 11:17-27 it writes that SHEM (“there”) is the progenitor of Abraham, who would become the father of the Jewish people.  In Biblical terms the battle of Chanukah was a war between those who fought for what is “there” against those who would only acknowledge what is “here” : the children of SHEM (there) against the children of JaPHEth (here).  It is how the vision of something far away can overcome what seems so overwhelmingly and negatively here.

There is greatness in being focused in the present and in the “here and now”, but wonder, awe and growth are rooted in a connection to something beyond.   At Chanukah we enjoy and are inspired by the connection of the beyond to where we stand right now. We reach for a light that begins dim (only one candle) and grows to to 800% of its original light by the last night.  It is a vision of growth from who we are and the life we have now to that which lies beyond us and is now just barely in our reach. May we all be blessed to reach and to feel the growth that comes from this season. Happy Chanukah!

*Based on a recorded shiur I heard by Rabbi Beryl Gerhshenfeld, probably based on a Maharal, but I don’t really know. Wisdom was learned from him, mistakes are entirely mine.