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November 21, 2014  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

Rising in spirit

By Rabbi Daniele Upbin Cong. Beth Shalom, Clearwater

Some congregants joke that the first thing a rabbi must learn in seminary is how to call a page number and say “please rise.”

I assure them that there is no such course but we do get exceptional “on-site training.” A particular congregant who had become fed up with the constant page calling and calisthenics shared with me how eventually, he was able to overcome the distraction. His reinterpretation of synagogue choreography has stayed with me ever since. He imparted that every time the rabbi says -“please rise,” he takes it as a spiritual cue. “To rise” is to be more conscious of one’s spirit – to increase one’s awareness of the divine connection. “To be seated” then, is to dwell in peace, to retreat inwardly in breath and calm.

I found this suggestion to be particularly poignant since there are always individuals in a congregation for whom it is a real physical challenge to get up and sit down. Through this parishioner’s perspective, we become conscious of the spiritual movement within the dance of rising and sitting during the service.

“Rising in spirit” has a direct application to our Hanukkah observance. The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) records a dispute between Hillel and Shammai regarding the proper way to light the Hanukkiya (the Hanukkah candelabra):

“Our Rabbis taught: The mitzvah of Hanukkah is one light for a man and his household. The zealous kindle a light for each person [in the household]. And for the extremely zealous, Shammai says: On the first day, light eight and thereafter, gradually reduce; but Hillel says: On the first day, light one and thereafter progressively increase ... two sages differ [about the reasons]. One maintains that Shammai’s reason is that lights should correspond to the days still to come, and that of Beth Hillel is that lights should correspond to the days that are past. The other maintains that Shammai’s reason is that the lights should correspond to the bull sacrifices of Sukkot, while Hillel’s reason is that we increase in matters of sanctity, not reduce (Ma’alin B’Kedusha)” [Translation of Talmud text by Maggie Anton on]

While Shammai’s argument is certainly reasonable, the law is according to Hillel. The rabbis were aware that as we increase the light, we increase the spiritual dimension of the occasion. Through each night of Hanukkah, as the candlelight brightens, we feel the growing blessing of illumination that pierces through the darkness of winter. Each candle represents yet another level toward which we can aspire – whether we are seeking greater sanctity in our relationships, in our workplace, or in our daily interactions, the additional candles remind us that there is always room to grow and improve.

The growing lights of the Hanukkiya remind us that we are each a candle of God, sharing knowledge and acts of love – living out the great miracle of our lives with gratitude and pride. This metaphor applies to the process of aging as well. As we advance in years, we have the opportunity to grow in wisdom and in holiness. Each passing year is an invitation to acknowledge that our spiritual light does not grow dimmer, it is an ever-emerging source of energy and illumination.

May each of us be blessed “to increase in holiness” just like the candles of the Hanukkah ritual. And may the light that shines from within us grow throughout the holiday and for years to come.

The Rabbinically Speaking column is provided as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis. Columns are assigned, on a rotating basis by the board.

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