The Light of Unity: A Chanukah Meditation Based on the writing of Rabbi Ami Silver

In a fractured and polarized world, many of us find ourselves seeking hope and unity within the brokenness. The Zohar - the core medieval text in the mystical thought of Kabbalah - offers a meditation on the light of a candle as a vision of Divine unity.
Before reading this text, try meditating on a burning candle for yourself. If you have a candle handy, try lighting it for a few minutes. If not, take a look at the GIF below. And if that doesn't work, that's okay; just imagine it in your mind.
Take some time to sit by the candle and gaze at its light.
  • What do you notice about: its colors, shapes, layers, and its heat?
  • How is it put together? What are the different materials that make up the candle and its flame?
  • What do you notice about the space that surrounds the flame itself?
  • Where do you see differentiation, and where do you see unity?
This piece of Zohar is divided into three parts, each with a set of guiding questions for you to reflect on:
אֲבָל תָּא חֲזֵי, מָאן דְּבָעֵי לְמִנְדַע חָכְמְתָא דְּיִחוּדָא קַדִּישָׁא. יִסְתַּכַּל בְּשַׁלְהוֹבָא דְּסָלְקָא מִגּוֹ גַּחֶלְתָּא. אוֹ מִגּוֹ בּוֹצִינָא דְּדָלִיק. דְּהָא שַׁלְהוֹבָא לָא סָלְקָא אֶלָּא כַּד אִתְאַחִיד בְּמִלָּה גַּסָּה (נ''א אחרא).
Come and see: One who desires to know the wisdom of holy unity should gaze upon a flame that rises from a coal, or from a lit candle. For the flame only rises when it is attached to a coarse (alt. other) object.
Reflection Questions
  • What is the relationship between the flame and the coarse object (i.e. the wick)?
  • Why do you think the pure flame is dependent on and coexists with the more coarse object? What lessons might this teach?
  • When have you felt particularly spiritual in your life? How did you stay grounded in this moment? Did the material world detract from, or enhance this spiritual experience?
The next stage is noticing the colors that form the flame:
תָּא חֲזֵי, בְּשַׁלְהוֹבָא דְּסָלְקָא אִית תְּרֵין נְהוֹרִין. חַד נְהוֹרָא חִוְורָא דְּנָהִיר. וְחַד נְהוֹרָא דְּאִתְאַחִיד בָּהּ אוּכְמָא אוֹ תִּכְלָא. הַהוּא נְהוֹרָא חִוְורָא אִיהוּ לְעֵילָא וְסָלְקָא בְאוֹרַח מִישׁוֹר. וּתְחוֹתֵיהּ הַהוּא נְהוֹרָא תִּכְלָא אוֹ אוּכְמָא דְּאִיהוּ כָּרְסַיָא לְהַהוּא חִוְורָא. וְהַהוּא נְהוֹרָא חִוְורָא שָׁארֵי עִלָוֵּיהּ וְאִתְאֲחִידוּ דָא בְּדָא לְמֶהוֵי כֹּלָּא חַד. וְהַהוּא נְהוֹרָא אוּכְמָא אוֹ גַּוָון תִּכְלָא דְּאִיהוּ לְתַתָּא הוּא כָּרְסַיָא דִיקָר לְהַהוּא חִוָּורָא...וְהַאי כָּרְסַיָא תִּכְלָא (או) אוּכְמָא אִתְאֲחַד בְּמִלָּה אָחֳרָא לְאִתְדַּלְּקָא דְּהוּא מִתַּתָּא וְהַהוּא אִתְעַר לֵיהּ לְאִתְאַחֲדָא בִּנְהוֹרָא חִוְּורָא (ס''א עלאה).
Come and see: In the rising flame there are two lights. One white, shining light; and one light to which black or blue is attached. The white light is on top and it rises in a straight path. And the blue or black light is beneath it, and it is a seat to the white. The white light rests upon it and they are attached to one another, forming a single unity. The light that is either black or a shade of blue that is below, is a throne of glory to the white [light]...And this blue (or) black throne is attached to another object (the wick) below it that kindles it and arouses it to attach itself to the white light (alt. above).
Reflection Questions
  • What are the three different colors or pieces the Zohar is drawing our attention to? How do they interact with one another?
  • How do you interpret the blue (or black) light being a "throne" to the white part of the flame?
  • What lessons about unity emerge from these different actors - the white light, the darker part of the flame, and the wick - coming together?
  • When have you experienced growth or a feeling of enlightenment out of a lower place of darkness?What role did that darkness play in that process? Did it help bring out the light?
The Zohar turns to the dynamic and stable qualities of the flame:
...וְהַהוּא נְהוֹרָא חִוְּורָא דְּעֲלֵיהּ לָא אִשְׁתַּנֵּי לְעָלְמִין דְּהָא חִוְּורָא הוּא תָּדִיר. אֲבָל הַאי תִּכְלָא אִשְׁתַּנֵּי לִגְוָונִין אִלֵּין. לְזִמְנִין תִּכְלָא אוֹ אוּכְמָא. וּלְזִמְנִין סוּמְקָא. וְהַאי אִתְאֲחִיד לִתְרִין סִטְרִין. אִתְאֲחִיד לְעֵילָא בְּהַהוּא נְהוֹרָא (ס''א עילאה) חִוְּורָא. אִתְאֲחִיד לְתַתָּא בְּהַהוּא מִלָּה דִּתְחוֹתוֹי דִּמְתַקְנָא בֵּיהּ לְאַנְהָרָא (מלין דשויין ליה לאדלקא) וּלְאִתְאַחֲדָא בֵּיהּ.
...The white light above it never changes, for it is constantly white. However, the blue changes to these [other] colors; at times it is blue or black, and at times it is red. And it is attached on both sides. It is attached above to that (alt. supernal) white light, [and] it is attached to that object below that has been set to give it light (to serve as kindling) and to attach itself to it…
Within the various layers of color of the flame, there are those that change their hue, and those that remain the same. The blue may change to black or red, representing the dynamic ebb and flow of life that takes place in proximity to the physical realm of experience. These changing colors are attached on both sides: they are joined from above to that supernal white light, and below to the physical object that serves as its kindling. In this way, the procession includes the concrete, physical realm (wick) at the bottom; the changing, fluid realm in between (blue/black/red); and the unchanging, transcendent light (white) that constantly hovers above.
Reflection Questions
  • Like the shifting colors of the darker part of the flame - from blue to red or black, and back again - when have you felt the rocky ebb and flow of life?
  • Like the constant shade of the white flame, which represents transcendence, when have you been able to see or move beyond the limitations of the physical world in front of you?
  • What has felt most constant and stabilizing in your life over the years?
Finally, the Zohar directs our attention towards that which is beyond the flame:
וְעַל נְהוֹרָא חִוְּורָא, שַׁרְיָיא לְעֵילָא נְהוֹרָא סְתִימָא דְּאַקִּיף לֵיהּ. וְרָזָא עִלָּאָה הָכָא. וְכֹלָּא תִשְׁכַּח בְּשַׁלְהוֹבָא דְּסָלִיק וְחָכְמְתִין דְּעֶלְיוֹנִין בֵּיהּ.
And resting above the white light is a concealed light that surrounds it. And herein lies a supernal mystery, and all of it can be found in the rising flame, in which the wisdom of the higher realms are present.
The Zohar addresses the light that radiates beyond the white of the flame - a hidden, concealed light that surrounds the bright contours of the flame itself. This relates to a hidden Divine realm that is present but not directly perceivable. It is attached to all of the other levels of the flame, but rather than perceiving it directly, we may relate to it through its mystery.
Reflection Questions
  • The Zohar we just learned uses a candle meditation to reflect on Divine unity. If the language of divinity speaks to you, how or where do you experience unity with God?
  • Alternatively, how or where do you experience unity within the universe more broadly? Where do you wish you could see it?
  • The book of Proverbs comments that the human being's soul, too, is like a candle (Proverbs 20:27).
  • Do you feel unity or alignment within yourself?
  • What practices could you adopt to maintain or improve that alignment?
  • When you feel surrounded by darkness - when you cannot seem to find the light of God or of hope - how do you try to uncover the light within?
If you plan to light candles in the near future - for Shabbat, Chanukah, a Yahrtzeit (in memory of a loved one), or simply to relax - bring along your reflections and intentions as you meditate on the peaceful, unifying lights.