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  • Rabbi Mordecai Finley Ph.D.

Psychoanalyzing Chanukah (adapted from 2016)


If you understand psychoanalysis, you can understand the basic worldview of the Kabbalah. The original meaning of "analysis" in Greek is to "loosen something up", and the original meaning of "psyche" is "soul." Literally, then, "psycho-analysis" means the "loosening up" or the "freeing" of the "soul".

One key idea in "loosening up" the soul is to see that what we do in the surface world is oftentimes a result of hidden, unseen forces deep within us. Things happen in the unconscious realms first, and then they percolate up into behavior. If we can figure out what is happening down in the unconscious world, then we can understand why we do what we do, up here in the conscious realm. The hidden dimension of the soul is freed into the conscious mind.

Kabbalah (the dominant form of Jewish mysticism today), has a similar view of things. Kabbalah, in general, sees this world that we live in as the world of "asiyah", action. This world of action, however, is rooted in an unseen world of cosmic forces that become actual in our realm. So, both psychoanalysis and Kabbalah believe that what is happening in our world is the result of forces in an unseen world. Being conscious of those forces allows us to understand the deeper contours of our lives and to engage in the work of repair, rededication.

Understood this way, the holiday of Chanukah can be seen not only as the commemoration of the victory in the war between the Maccabees and the Syrian Hellenists in 167-164 BCE, but also much more. From a Kabbalistic perspective, that war, and the holiday created in its aftermath, expressed a cosmic world, a war going on in another realm.

Now, you don't have to believe in the cosmic world-view of the Kabbalah to benefit from its insights, one of which is the concept of light. On Chanukah, lighting the lamps is the mitzvah; it really is the only ritual way that we celebrate Chanukah. Hence one of the names for Chanukah is "Chag Ha-Urim", the Festival of Lights. Chanukah candles may not be used for any purpose other than to symbolize the victory in that war and the rededication of the temple that occurred afterwards.

At a cosmic level, Chanukah is only about light, especially the battle between light and darkness. We live out the battle between light and darkness in our realm when we fight against evil in the world and destructive forces within. From a mystical perspective, the battle of the Maccabees against the Syrian Hellenists was an event in this world that expressed the ongoing battle between light and darkness in the hidden realms. In the mystical tradition, we focus also on the battle within.

That battle within often rages in deep, unseen dimensions of the self. We feel its effects. Inner forces that seek to dim the light of the soul create inner alienation, existential doubt, lack of meaning and purpose, fear, anxiety and often times emotional brittleness. Sometimes that inner dimming of the light causes self-hatred and depression. Sometimes that inner dimming can cause us to project our battle onto other people, and seek to make them the cause of our anger or despair that seeps from within.

We attack others, or we withdraw, as a clawing darkness attacks us in interior spaces. Nearly every person has experienced this sometimes crippling darkness.

Always remember: depression and anger usually mean that some light has dimmed within you. That inner darkness creates great pain. Depression and anger help reduce the pain momentarily, like a drug. The righteous path is to fight the darkness, to create light within. How do we create light within? Don't think of affirmations. The destructive forces within us laugh at affirmations.

Any person who has truly fought inner darkness knows that this fighting can be a bitter, protracted war. Either you surrender, and medicate, or you fight. The essential question is, "How do I want to leave this place?" Chanukah tells us, "Go out fighting."

"The commandment is a lamp, and God's teaching is the light" (Proverbs 6:23). One teaching of Chanukah is that for the light to shine within, we must prepare a lamp. Maintaining the lamp within as a constant spiritual practice is a core value in the spiritual understanding of Chanukah. The lamp may not always be lit, but we maintain the lamp anyway. Practices that help rid us of anger, resentment, unwarranted fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, envy and so forth push away inner darkness and prepare the lamp. We need hope, courage, and steadfastness. We meditate on beauty, truth and justice, but especially love.

When we push away those darker forces within, and meditate on the garments of God that make life worthwhile, we can feel a light emerging within us, sometimes an obscure light, maybe just a glow, that can grow into a steady flame. Consciousness follows the object of consciousness.

As we coax that flame within, according to the Kabbalah, we increase the light in the cosmic realms, as well.

Bringing our inner struggles with the darkness into consciousness is painful. It is easier to depress or anger (hate ourselves or hate others, as the case may be) and medicate. As we deepen our understanding of the pain in the soul that is the source of the darkness, however, and bring the struggles to the conscious mind, we initiate the soul's path to liberation.

There was a great miracle, then and there. And potentially an ongoing miracle now, in each of us.


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