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When we kindle the candles of the Hanukkah menorah, we will immerse ourselves in a primary theme of the holiday: the sacred human capacity to turn towards the darkness within us, and to extract from those shadows sparks of holiness which might otherwise never have been revealed.

This theme surely resonates with those of us who strive to live according to the principles of 12 Step recovery. We engage in a daily spiritual practice involving “rigorous honesty,” taking a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of ourselves, including the darker aspects of our nature. We strive to delve into and surrender our “defects of character,” transforming the shadow aspects of our selves into words and actions which promote light and healing.

A mystical Jewish tradition holds that there is a “hidden light” (in Hebrew: “or ha-ganuz”) embedded in all of Creation. According to a rabbinic legend, the light of the first day of Creation extended to the end of the universe. But once the first human was created on the sixth day and ate from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, this orginal light of Creation lasted only 36 additional hours (12 hours on Friday plus the 24 hours of the first Shabbat) – and then was “hidden away” until the arrival of the Messianic era. 1

Revealing the “Hidden Light”

We human beings are charged with the task of perceiving and testifying to the continued existence of this “hidden light,” revealing it through spiritual practice and right action. The or ha-ganuz is said to be revealed only to 36 anonymous righteous people (the lamed-vavnikim) in each generation, whose merit sustains the world. This number correlates to the total of 36 lights we kindle on a single hanukiah over the eight nights of Hanukkah.

Each of us must consider ourselves as potentially one of these 36 righteous ones, attuned to and committed to revealing the concealed light in order to sustain the world. One Hasidic master teaches that we light these 36 candles over the course of Hanukkah specifically in order to remember our capacity and responsibility to search out and redeem the hidden light from the darkness of our world.2

Holiness in our Shadows

According to this view, when we light each Hanukkah candle, we are not creating new, unprecedented light; rather, by our actions we actually are revealing pre-existent, ever-present light concealed within our shadows. Our kindling manifests our trust in the presence of a hidden holiness within us, embedded even within our own shadows – the less savory aspects of ourselves which, when we repress, deny, or project them, can express themselves through self-centered, destructive, addictive behaviors.

Thomas Merton describes this or ha-ganuz as a “dimmed light” and a “hidden whole-ness” within Creation.3 According to the educator and activist Parker Palmer, in this spiritual sense “wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.”4 In addition to understanding the spiritual practice of Hanukkah as eliciting light from shadow, we might also experience it as experiencing our wholeness by embracing our brokenness, surely a concept which resonates with those in recovery.

In this vein, the psychologist Carl Jung contended that we can realize our human potential only by honestly recognizing and accepting our shadow as an integral aspect of ourselves. “There is no light without shadow, no psychic wholeness without imperfection,” he wrote. “To round itself out, life calls not for perfection but for completeness; and for this the ‘thorn in the flesh’ is needed, the suffering of defects without which there is no progress and no ascent.”5

Darkness is Our Candle

Many active addicts fear and seek to medicate uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. But as the Sufi poet Rumi noted – and as recovering addicts can attest – ultimately our efforts to flee from our shadows end in futility. Eventually, each of us must turn, face, and befriend the aspects of ourselves which most disturb us:

No matter how fast you run,
your shadow keeps up.
Sometimes it’s
in front! Only full overhead sun diminishes
your shadow. But that shadow has been serving
you. What hurts you, blesses you. Darkness is
your candle. Your boundaries are your quest.
I could explain this, but it will break the
glass cover on your heart, and there’s no
fixing that. You must have shadow and light
source both.6

On Hanukkah, at the darkest time of the year in the Northern hemisphere, we embrace this teaching that “darkness is our candle.” Rather than denying, repressing, or projecting our shadows, we choose instead to turn towards them. We cultivate the middah (character trait) of trust (bitachon), our capacity to feel safe enough to acknowledge our shadow, representing our self-centered fears and desires, our unpleasant thoughts and feelings, our “defects of character.”

Through recovery, we learn to trust the process by which we can reveal the hidden light. We learn to trust the acceptance and love of our recovery community. We learn to trust a process by which we can honestly expose and befriend our shadows to others. We learn to trust that if we do so, the obstacles which have blocked our way can actually transform into lights illuminating our path.

As we kindle the lights of the hanukiah in these dark days, may we be blessed with the ability to trust, so we may turn towards the darkness within us. May we befriend rather than flinch from our shadows, so that we may extract the light hidden within them. May we trust in the hidden sources of light, hope, and redemption, and make them manifest in our darkened world.

Rabbi Marc Margolius is a Senior Programs Director at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, where he directs programming for lay leaders and alumni of its clergy leadership program, as well as the Tikkun Middot Project, which integrates Jewish mindfulness with middot (character trait) practice. He hosts IJS’s weekday mindfulness meditation sessions and teaches an online program, Awareness in Action: Cultivating Character through Mindfulness and Middot.

Previously, Marc served as rabbi at West End Synagogue in Manhattan, and conceived and directed the Legacy Heritage Innovation Project, an initiative supporting systemic educational transformation in congregations across North America, Europe and Israel. At Congregation Beth Am Israel (Penn Valley PA) from 1989-2002, Marc helped develop a national model of the synagogue as a Shabbat-centered community constructed around intergenerational learning. He was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (1989) and is a graduate of Yale Law School; in his previous career, he was a public interest attorney working on housing and employment discrimination issues. He lives in New York City with his wife, Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, and their children.

  1. Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 8:5: Rabbi Levi said: The light which was created on the frist day of creation served for 36 hours after Adam ate from the tree: from Friday until Saturday nigh. […] Once Shabbat came out, [the first] darkness began to arrive. Adam became fearful and said: “This is what God said when he cursed me upon eating from the tree - the snake will come and bit me!” Rabbi Levi said: At that time God presented Adam with two flints. He struck them together and a fire burst forth. He blessed them saying: borei m’orei ha’aish - “the creator of fire.” Shmuel said: Therefore, we say the blessing for fire on Motza’ei Shabbat - because that is the origin of its creation. 

  2. Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Spira of Dynov (1783-1841), in his B’nai Yisachar, Kislev v’Tevet Discourse 11:6,
    trans. Rut Yair-Nussbaum: [L]amed vav (36) candles were prescribed in accordance with 36 (lamed vav) times the words light, candle and luminaries (or va-ner u’me’orot) are mentioned in the Torah. This hints to the hidden light (or ha-ganuz) that served the biblical Adam 36 hours, then was hidden and covered in the Torah. That is why, in my opinion, the name of the month (into which shined light from the hidden light and is hidden in the Torah) is called Kislev: kes lamed-vav. A covering 36 (kisui lamed vav) times of light, candles, and luminaries. This shining light was/understanding was revealed this month. And to this time is added Tevet, light is good (or ki tov).  

  3. Thomas Merton, Hagia Sophia (1963).  

  4. Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (Wiley: 2009) p. 5.  

  5. C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy (Routledge: 2014), p. 159.  

  6. “Shadow and Light Source Both,” in The Soul of Rumi (trans. Coleman Banks).  

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