light glow cracked glass MGD©Hanerot halalu anu madlikin… Hanerot halalu kodesh hem, v’ein lanu reshut l’hishtamesh bahem, elah lirotam bilvad

These lights we kindle… These lights are holy, and we are not allowed to use them, but only to look upon them.

As we light the Hanukah candles this year, I’m struck by this phrase that we say traditionally just after we kindle the flames: ein lanu reshut. We are not allowed / We are not permitted / We have no authority to use these lights; they are to be held at a distance, the object of our gaze rather than the instruments of our bodies.

It strikes me that this is a most unusual phrase. I can think of nowhere else in Jewish ritual life that we find the same language, the words “we have no authority.” The closest we come, perhaps, is the bitul (nullification) of hametz before Passover, when we declare “All hametz in my possession… is now as dust of the earth.” Yet there, among other differences, the emphasis is on the devaluing of the object—making it as dust of the earth—whereas here the act serves to intensify the value of the light, making it holy. In the Passover case we make hametz hefker, ownerless; in the Hanukah case we make the light hekdesh, consecrated.

Both, of course, involve an act of surrender, giving up our reshut, our authority, our agency, our ownership. Both remind us that, when we take away the constructs of law and language, there is no ownership—ki li ha’aretz, the earth belongs not to us, but to the Divine. Yet where the process of searching for (with a candle!), destroying, and nullifying hametz is intended to get all of it out of our reshut, our home and property, the Hanukah candles must remain within our homes—or, more precisely, on the threshold of our homes, pointing both inward to us and outward to the world. One cannot fulfill Pesach with hametz in one’s home; but one can only fulfill Hanukah by having a lit hanukiah in the home.

Thus, though Hanukah partakes of a similar impulse of surrender as the pre-Pesach ritual, it functions differently. We don’t’ hide away the Hanukah light as we do the hametz; rather we make it front and center, the object of our reflection. Once we let go of our hametz, we aim not to encounter it again. But once we light the Hanukah candles, the whole point is to encounter them, to see them, to gaze upon them.

Both Pesach and Hanukah are centered in and around the home, around family and children. And as we see here, both involve a verbal, willful repurposing of something in our home. I understand this dimension as a call to be aware of the paradox of being in exile and truly at home at the same time. My colleague Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell brought to my attention a teaching of the Sefas Emes that points us in this direction, emphasizing the Talmud’s instruction that the hanukiah is to be placed on the threshold of the home, opposite the mezuzah. According to the Sefas Emes, the light of Hanukah is the light of the menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem, now emerging from our mikdash me’at, our tiny temple, our home, accompanied by the song of the Temple, Hallel, which we recite all eight days of Hanukah.

We’re aware, of course, that we’re not in the Temple. But, as long as the candles burn, we treat them as kodesh, the stuff of the Temple. We partake of the same playacting, the same dreammaking, as that central word in the Haggadah: We must see ourselves as if, k’ilu, we are there, as if, k’ilu, this is the light of the place where we are most connected with the Divine, the source of our inspiration, and the inspiration for our gratitude.

Hag Urim Sameach! Wishing you a joyous and inspired Hanukah!

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