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Ner Chanukah Mitzvah L'Hanicha


THE TALMUD (Shabbos 22a) states that it is desirable to position the Chanukah menorah in the left part of one’s doorway, so that the mezuzah of that doorway will be on the right – as required by Jewish law – and the menorah will be on the left. This Shabbos being the Shabbos of Chanukah, it is appropriate that we understand this law in greater depth. Doing so will also furnish an illustration of how the revealed and esoteric parts of the Torah (nigleh and nistar, respectively) are parts of a perfectly integrated whole: each mystical concept finds expression in the revealed part of the Torah, even in practical halacha (Torah law); and the revealed aspects of Torah in turn, reflect an underlying spiritual significance.

As a starting point for our discussion, let us consider two seemingly contradictory verses. One verse (Psalms 33:6) tells us, “The heavens [and creation generally] were made by the word of G-d”; another (Psalms 115:3) states, “All that G-d desired – He made.” The former mentions the “word of G-d” as having brought creation into being; this is consistent with the Biblical account of creation (“And G-d said, ‘Let there be…’). The latter verse, however, seems to imply that whatever was made, was made because G-d simply desired to make it – without having to formulate that desire in words. Simply by wishing it so, it came to pass. (This deeper meaning is ascribed to the verse because the superficial meaning, that nothing prevented G-d from creating anything he desired, is superfluous with respect to G-d: would we have thought, without this verse, that something could have stopped G-d from doing as He wished?)

The resolution of this apparent contradiction lies in the distinction between the basic fact of a thing’s existence, and the details of that existence. For example, when G-d created the sun and moon, He said (Genesis 1:14), “Let there be luminaries in the firmament of heaven.” There was no mention of how they should look, how big they should be, or any other detail. The facts that the sun is spherical, of a certain physical dimension and a certain distance from the earth, is composed of burning gases which generate a specific amount of heat, etc.; and that the moon is smaller, composed of rock which is cold, reflects instead of generates light, etc., were not specified in the simple utterance, “Let there be luminaries.” Yet these details must also have been part of G-d’s “design” or they would not have come into being.

We refer to the simple fact of a thing’s existence as its chomer (“substance”), and to its details as its tzurah (“form”). Everything in the universe possesses these two qualities. When the verse says “The heavens were made by the word of G-d,” it is referring to the basic substance of everything, the chomer; while the statement that everything came into being simply because G-d wished it so, refers to the “form,” the tzurah.

To appreciate the significance of this, we must remember that G-d, of course, has no “mouth” and does not really “say” anything at all. What then do we mean when we speak of the “word of G-d,” and use expressions like, “And G-d said”? The Torah uses such anthropomorphisms to signify how G-d expressed His will from potential into actual physical existence. A person’s words are essentially expression of his or her thoughts. As thoughts, however, the person’s ideas are inseparable from the person themself; what is more, they cannot be known to anyone else. By articulating his or her thoughts in words, the concept takes on an independent “life” of its own, outside the mind of the thinker and perceptible to others. (The analogy, however, is necessarily inexact, since there is nothing that is truly “outside of” or independent from G-d.)

We are now ready for a beautiful insight into the dual nature of creation, that is, its possessing elements of both chomer and tzurah, stemming from the “word” of G-d and the “will” of G-d respectively. Needless to say, G-d created things in this way for a reason. The reason is that G-d desired that His sovereignty be expressed in the most emphatic manner possible. For angels and similar spiritual beings to recognize the sovereignty of G-d is of limited satisfaction, since they perceive G-d’s life-giving force openly and can see for themselves that their very existence is nothing more than a manifestation of His will. The truest and most emphatic manifestation of G-d’s sovereignty lies, rather, in His reign, not only under conditions where His “subjects” are spiritual beings, but even where things appear separate and independent of G-d, yet submit to His will anyway. In order for this to be possible, G-d deliberately concealed Himself from our created world, with the expectation that we would, through study of Torah and performance of Mitzvos, bring out His sovereignty even here.

This, then, is what is meant by the “word” of G-d. Just as a person’s spoken word appears to have left the speaker and assumed the existence of an independent concept, which nonetheless is a revelation of what formerly had been an internal aspect of the speaker’s private thoughts, so does the expression “the word of G-d” refer to creation of the universe in such a form as to appear utterly independent of G-d. Nevertheless, only the chomer of the universe was formed this way. The fact that each and every thing also has a form, or tzurah, which exists as it does for no other reason than that G-d so desires, expresses the idea that in truth – notwithstanding how things appear to us mortals – nothing is “independent” of G-d; everything is, after all, nothing more than a manifestation of His will.

Now, the mitzvos of the Torah are expressions of the will of G-d. We put on tefillin, light Shabbos (or Chanukah) candles, etc. for no other reason (at root) than because G-d wants us to do so. As noted, the purpose of the scheme of creation described above is that we Jews, through performing mitzvos, should express G-d’s will, and thereby His sovereignty, in this world. When we do so, this elicits a positive response from G-d: He takes “pleasure” (allegorically speaking) in our mitzvah observance and responds by renewing, even increasing, the spiritual life-force He bestows upon the universe and upon us in particular. The spiritual life force inherent in each thing as its tzurah becomes less “hidden” and more manifest.

The way this works is similar to prayer. There is a teaching that the angel known as “Metat.” (the angel’s name is actually “Metatron,” but since it is considered improper to pronounce the name of angels, it is commonly abbreviated “Metat.”) weaves crowns for G-d out of the prayers of the Jews. The mystical meaning of this is related to what we said earlier about how the spoken word expresses what was concealed within the depths of a person’s mind. The fact is that the very letters of speech – indeed, even the letters of one’s thoughts – can be viewed as vehicles for the expression of what is deep within, so deep as to be inarticulable. When something has come to the surface sufficiently as to be contained within letters, only then is it expressible – even to the person’s own self, as a conscious thought – whereas previously, it utterly transcended all knowledge or expression.

Similarly, the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet derive from a spiritual source so profound as to defy all expression. This level of G-dliness is known as kesser, or “crown,” because a crown sits atop one’s head and thus symbolizes what is higher than all intellectual perception. The spiritual level of kesser is associated with G-d’s will; the faculty of “will,” too, transcends all intellectual justification. (A person prefers chocolate over vanilla simply because that is the way it is, not for any “reason.”) The letters of the aleph-beis, the Hebrew alphabet, like the letters of our thoughts, express and convey G-d’s innermost wishes or will (so to speak) into a form that can be manifest to the universe.

This is the mystical reason why the Torah – the very wisdom and will of G-d – is in written form, expressed in letters. The letters of the Torah actually transcend the Torah itself, for the Torah stems from the wisdom (chochmah) of G-d, whereas the letters are superior to this level, and are themselves what allow G-d’s will (kesser) to be formulated into the Torah!

(However, the mitzvos of the Torah are, as stated, the actual will of G-d, and derive, like the letters, from the level of kesser.)

The teaching about the angel Metat. weaving crowns for G-d out of the prayers of the Jews refers to the fact that the letters of our prayers carry our yearnings and requests up to the lofty heights of their spiritual source in the will of G-d, the level known as kesser, or crown. It is from here, His transcendent will, that G-d transmits the answers to our prayers, even if these transcend reason. For example, reason demands that when one has sinned, they must be punished with suffering, G-d forbid. Yet prayer, reaching as it does to a level which transcends reason, has the power to elicit from G-d a “new will”: notwithstanding that formerly, G-d’s will was that the person suffer, now, in answer to prayer, G-d “changes His mind” (to use an exclusively human expression) and now wills that he or she be spared. That is the inner significance of the liturgical expression, “yehi ratzon…,” meaning “May it be Your will that, etc.”

A similar spiritual dynamic exists with respect to observance of mitzvos – which, as stated above, derive from G-d’s will, or kesser – and the Torah itself, stemming from G-d’s chochmah, or wisdom. Scripture tells us (Proverbs 6:23), “For the mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light.” In this metaphor, the light cannot exist without the candle: it is impossible for a flame to float, disembodied, with no hold on some physical wick and fuel. The meaning of the verse is that in order for the “light” of Torah to be possible, it must be preceded by the mitzvah “candle.” We said above that the letters of the aleph-beis formulate and convey G-d’s inexpressible will, united with G-d Himself, into the form of the Torah (so to speak). What is it that “causes” this to happen; why should G-d want to “lower” Himself, as it were, into expressible form? The answer is that, just as the letters of prayer rise unto their source – kesser, the will of G-d – and elicit from there a “new” will to be bestowed upon the supplicant, so do mitzvos, which also stem from the will of G-d, rise up to their source in kesser and bring about the investiture of G-d within the Torah.

We are now in a position to understand why the Chanukah menorah must be placed to the left, while the mezuzah goes on the right. The mitzvah of mezuzah entails the affixing of a handwritten parchment scroll containing the Shema to one’s doorposts. The verses quoted in the mezuzah include the directive to love G-d with all your heart, all your soul, and all your possessions. The mitzvah of mezuzah thus serves as a symbol of the concept expressed at the beginning of this synopsis: that by dedicating ourselves and all the substance of this world to the service of G-d, we express G-d’s sovereignty even where it is not obvious, and bring out that the will of G-d (giving rise to the tzurah of creation) is manifest even within that which was created by the word of G-d (the chomer). Indeed, the mezuzah represents the very “mitzvah candle” which makes possible the “light of Torah.”

This light of Torah is precisely what the ancient Greeks sought to extinguish during the period of Chanukah. The Greeks did not wish to annihilate the Jews physically; their goal was to Hellenize them and, as the al hanissim Chanukah prayer expresses it, “cause them to forget Your Torah” (G-d forbid).

Mitzvah observance is associated with the right side, since mitzvos draw us closer to G-d, and Scripture says (Song of Songs 2:6 and 8:3; see also Talmud, Sota 47a) “And His right hand embraces me.” On the other hand, the left side is associated with a “distant,” as opposed to close, relationship. The Greeks tried to push G-d into the distance, even “off the map,” as the saying goes. Despite this, by virtue of the Jews’ self sacrificing commitment to remain steadfast in Torah study and mitzvah observance, we merited G-d’s miraculous assistance in defeating the mighty Greek empire, thus showing that the light of Torah shines even into the darkest and most distant reaches. We thus place the mezuzah, whose spiritual merit (as a symbol of mitzvah observance generally) rises up to draw forth renewed and increased Divine blessings, to the right; and the Chanukah menorah, whose light represents the resulting invincible light of Torah, in the left, where it illuminates the farthest reaches of even the outside (which is why we place it in the doorway).

Lo Tov Heyos HaAdam Levado
Mayim Rabim Lo Yuchlu L'Chabos
B'Etzem HaYom Hazeh Nimol Avrohom
Erda Na
Chayei Sara
V'Avraham Zakein Ba Bayamim
Vayachp'ru Avdei Yitzchok
Vayashkeim Lavan Baboker
Vayeavek Ish Imo
VeHinei Anachnu M'Almim Alumim
Ner Chanukah Mitzvah L'Hanicha
Vayigash Eilav Yehudah
Chachlili Einayim Miyayin