Hanukkah: Noticing Beauty in Darkness

“To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle.” -Walt Whitman.

Hanukkah is not just about Maccabees and a tiny jar of oil. No, Hanukkah is about finding hope and beauty despite the darkness of the season. Soon after taking over, the Maccabees were themselves corrupt, murderous, and formed problematic political alliances not so different than that which they fought against. As for the oil – Meh. It doesn’t do much for me. I’m more of a ‘part the seas’ or ‘burning bush’ kinda guy. Call me older fashioned. Famously, the Talmud asks, “Mai Hanukkah”, “what is Hanukkah”? A lovely conversation follows in which we learn to light our candles with an increasing sense of the miraculous and light (Hillel’s position) rather than with diminishing illumination (Shamai’s position). The nature of Jewish textual study is an invitation into the text, so as my contribution to the conversation I answer “what is Hanukkah” differently than either Hillel or Shamai. To me, Hanukkah is a commitment to bring kavod (honor, or weight) to the world around us.

The gold of the Old Temple was valued by its weight. Similarly, the ability to appreciate beauty around us is to endow it with value. Beauty is more than just an aesthetically pleasing quality. It requires a level of attention, appreciation, and wonder on the part of the person perceiving the beauty. The human capacity for kavod (to honor and appreciate) aligns nicely with the Positive Psychology human virtue of appreciating beauty.

How do we notice the beauty around us?

symetryThe question is all the more significant in the darkest season, hence the importance of Hanukkah. We most easily perceive beauty in panoramic perspective that sees connections or in the microscopic view that searches for the unique.

Beauty is found in powerful similarity, in repeating patterns, in balance and in symmetry. Similarities and patterns are found throughout nature but are easily ignored. The fact that such intricacies in nature are constantly around us but we fail to notice proves that beauty is more than something being endowed with a particular aesthetic. The ability to perceive requires our attention. The pattern of milk as it swirls in a hot coffee cup, the patterns of our veins and arteries in our bodies, the waves of the ocean, patterns of the galaxies of the cosmos are amazingly beautiful. There are days when we miss what is right in front of us. Hanukkah reorients us to what we value (kavod) and to the beauty that surrounds us.

Beauty is found not only in the interconnective patterns all around us, but also in our ability to perceive what is unique. Where are patterns broken? What makes something different than my first perception? Can I take time to appreciate “blue.” Beauty ask us to invest attention and to value not just ‘blue’, but to perceive the difference between periwinkle blue, cyan, baby blue, powder blue, Bermuda blue, azure, navy blue, turquoise, or cerulean.Unique

“Who is honored (mi mehubad)? The one who honors all life.”

Imagine seeing each person as a unique individual rather than like me or non-like me. Democratic or Republican. Young or Old. Jewish or Not-Jewish.

Regarding the unique character of every person, our sages put it this way:

“Here is the greatness of the Holy One Blessed One. Man mints many coins with one stamp, all of them the same as one another. When God minted every person with the stamp of Adam not one of them is the same. For this reason every single person must say “The world was created for me.” -Sanhedrin 37B.

Things you can do during Hanukkah to appreciate your capacity for kavod and your ability to appreciate beauty:

1) Each night of Hanukkah, after you light your candles, spend a few minutes thinking about what makes a particular person, object, or place so special. What are the unique qualities you find? Consider this person’s, this object’s, or this place’s connection to others. How vast a web of connection can you find? Share your thoughts with the people present if you’re lucky enough to light candles in this dark season with others.

2) This Hanukkah, find an occasion to say the Shechiyanu blessing beyond the first day. The blessing is said each time we do something for the first time or even the first time in a long while. Do something unique this week.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, shehechehyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh.shechiyanu

Praise to You, Eternal Blessing One: for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this season.

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