Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Lessons From Chanukah: Clarity, Purity and Joy

Ever wonder why the Jewish New Year begins with three holidays one after the other, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and then no Biblical holidays for another six months, till Passover?

Perhaps one answer is that God wants us to start off the New Year right. He created us to have a relationship with Him and at the beginning of each New Year, He gives us the tools we need to clear away obstacles to coming close to Him. These obstacles are a lack of clarity, purity or joy. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, each address a different potential barrier to our relationship with God.

Chanukah, the first Rabbinic holiday following Sukkot, celebrates the rededication by the Maccabees of the Temple, recaptured from the Greeks in the 2nd century BCE. As we will discuss, Chanukah teaches us how to have more clarity, purity and joy. In Chanukah, the lessons of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot coalesce.

The first obstacle to coming close to God is a lack of clarity. If we do not acknowledge who created us and why, how can we have a relationship with our Creator?

Crowning God as our King and Creator is a central theme of Rosh Hashanah. On the holiday, we ask ourselves, “How can I live my life as God intended when He created me?”

On Chanukah, we thank God for saving us from a spiritual threat. The Greeks wanted the Jews to assimilate and as the rampant assimilation of today makes painfully clear, identifying a spiritual menace is much more difficult than a physical one. The clarity of the Maccabees enabled them to recognize what was worth fighting for. We achieve clarity when we follow the example of the Maccabees and live our values, even at great personal sacrifice.

The second obstacle to coming close to God is a lack of purity. When a person sins, their connection to God weakens. Sometimes we become so sunken in impurity that we no longer feel God’s presence in our lives. Yom Kippur, through repentance, teaches us how to clear away accumulated impurities and invigorate our relationship with God.

After the Maccabees recaptured the Temple, which the Greeks had defiled, they were still able to find one ritually pure jug of oil to light the Menorah. The oil – only enough for one day – miraculously lasted for eight.

Each of us is a miniature temple housing the holy of holies, our souls. As in the story of Chanukah, our temple gets defiled by foreign influences. But even if we are covered in layers of filth, there will always remain a core of purity within – like that untouched jug of pure oil.

To access this purity, we must to do what the Maccabees did and clear away the contamination as best we can. Then we will discover an ever flowing wellspring of inner purity.

The third obstacle to coming close to God is a lack of joy. When life does not go as expected, we may get angry or bitter with God. This holds us back from having a close relationship with Him.

Sukkot, the festival of joy, occurs during the harvest season, a time of abundance. Part of the holiday’s festivity comes from our appreciation of the many blessings God has given us. A person is unable to feel bitterness and gratitude at the same time; the choice is therefore ours. Sukkot calls out to us, “Choose joy!”

In a study, Dr. Robert A. Emmons found that gratitude can increase our happiness by 25 percent. To increase your happiness, begin or end your day by expressing appreciation to God for at least one blessing in your life. Preferably speak to God out loud and in your native language. Elaborate on how you have benefited from the gift.

An alternative exercise is to ask yourself, “What has greatly enhanced the quality of my life?”

General categories include: Judaism, family, friends, emotional/physical health, a career, talents and abilities, money, possessions, food, shelter and clothing. After you have chosen something specific to focus on, read out loud the bold sentences below. Imagine a trusted confidante asking you the questions in quotes and pause after each question, tuning into the answer your body gives you. If one of the sentences does not resonate with you, leave it out for now.

I am God’s child. “How does it feel to be God’s child?” Out of His love for me, He gave me ___(say out loud the quality of life enhancer). This has enhanced my life by___(say out loud the benefits you receive from it). My Father gave this specifically to me, because He loves me. “How does it feel to be loved by your Father?” I am deeply grateful to my Father. “How does it feel to be grateful to your Father?”

Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale slowly through the mouth, allow yourself to completely let go of all stress and tension; do this for at least two exhalations. Then rest in the warm feeling of being loved and cared for by God.

You can repeat this process using different quality of life enhancers. You can do this exercise once a day or at least once a week. This exercise can help you have the insight that just as the clear blessings in your life are given to you by God for your benefit because He loves you, everything else in your life is also given to you by God out of His love for you. Although we do not understand how something specific is a manifestation of His love, the fact that God does love us is something we can see, feel and know.

Chanukah, a festival of thanksgiving, does not mark the end of the struggle against the Greeks; the fighting continued for another 22 years. Why didn’t the Jews wait until the end of the war to celebrate?

Perhaps to teach us the secret of gratitude: To savor and be grateful for every blessing, regardless of what else is going on. Even if your life feels like a warzone, like the Maccabees, find reasons to celebrate and be grateful.

Each day contains something to be appreciative of, a portal to joy and feeling God’s love for you. Every day, make a conscious decision to focus on and be grateful for what goes right. Savor and delight in life’s pleasures, enjoying them mindfully. When you notice something that benefits you, turn your attention to God and say to Him, “Thank you God!”

Search for blessings even within the painful aspects of your life. Do they contain a silver lining, positive aspects or opportunities? Could circumstances have easily been worse? What are signs of God’s help amidst your challenges?

In Rabbi David Ashear’s excellent book, Living Emunah, he suggests keeping a record of times God helped you in some way. You can keep the entries short and include even seemingly minor incidences. You will likely notice that the more you write down events, the more you recognize God’s hand in your life.

Many of us struggle with maintaining clarity, purity or joy. Pick the area which you feel most motivated to address. Choose one concrete step or change you will make to enhance that area. This way, the light of Chanukah will continue to guide you during the coming months.

A hidden world

The Hebrew word for world is olam. This is related to the Hebrew word, helaim, hidden. The Creator of the world is hidden. Life’s essence and purpose are hidden.

But God wants us to find Him – that’s why we’re here. So right away, at the start of each New Year, with the holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, God gives us the tools we need to find Him.

These holidays enable us to peel away the layers concealing life’s essence. Rosh Hashanah leads us past the distractions – to clarity; Yom Kippur, past the forbidden desires – to purity; Sukkot, past the disappointments – to joy.

When everything extraneous has been removed, what is left at life’s core?

What is life really about?

Love and Joy. The love our Creator has for us and the joy of gratitude and closeness to Him.

On Chanukah, as we bask in the warm glow of the candles and recall the miracles of the past and present, we sense the love and feel the joy. 

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