by Brian Tucker (12/19/20) (c)
The Shamash lights the First Candle
“Our present difficulty is that we envisage the universe simply in its physical dimensions. We have lost the awareness that the universe has from the beginning been a psychic-spiritual as well as material-physical reality. It has taken the entire course of the evolutionary process for the universe to find its expression in the florescence of living forms and in the various modes of consciousness that are manifested throughout Earth.”
From Thomas Berry’s “Reinventing the Human at the Species Level” in the Appendix material “The Universe as Cosmic Liturgy”
In the following series of slides, I’ll be exploring how Chanukah might be reinterpreted from a larger cosmological perspective. We begin by considering the question:
From what or whom does the observable world emanate? The first candle to be lit in the 9-branched Chanukiah lamp is known as the Shamash. From this candle all other candles are lit starting from the left and lighting candles to the right (note: there is also a 7-branched lamp which was used in earlier Jewish temples called a menorah1).
The Shamash candle can be lit as a reminder of the primordial nothingness out of which our Universe arose.
The Aleph can be viewed as a symbol of nothingness, a foundational building block inherent in the Creation of our Universe.
a) Element reaching up as symbolizing the world above (realm of the apparent diversity and differentiation of creation)
b) Element reaching down as symbolizing the world below (realm of interiority, self-organization and subjectivity)
c) Flame-like core of the Aleph – representing a communion of both above and below (realm of intimacy and interrelatedness)
I see a commonality here with Thomas Berry’s notion of the three modes of expression by which the Nature of the Universe can be known (from “Twelve Understandings Concerning the Ecozoic Era” by Thomas Berry)
Subjectivity (interiority, self-organization)
Communion (intimacy, interrelatedness)
From the nothingness (core building block of the Aleph), comes the first light. In his book “Let there Be Light: Modern Cosmology and Kabbalah”, Physicist and Author Howard Smith makes a compelling case that the link from the realm of the physical (Exteriority) to that hidden or inner spiritual realm (Interiority) may actually be Light.
The simple act of lighting the first of eight Chanukah candles from the Shamash flame (the central candle used for lighting the others) may help symbolize that out of great mystery and nothingness the Universe emerges. The blessing recited on Chanukah (Barukh atah Adonai – Blessed are You, Mystery of the Universe) affirms that Eternal Presence for which no description can ever be complete or perfectly understood. Through our human birth, we have the potential to act as co-participants in the ongoing birthing process of the Cosmos (cosmogenesis), the opportunity to help usher in an era where humans live sustainably and in harmony with all species.
1. Per conversation with Rabbi Maurice Harris, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Rabbi of Princeton Reconstructionist Synagogue.