- a precept or a commandment
- a good deed done from religious duty
Mitzvot — the “laws” that a Jew has to obey — have come to mean a lot more to me over the past week. A mitzvah can be law … or it can be so much more. Just like I talked about yesterday with rituals — it’s what you put into them.
In his delightful and hilariously profound book, A Year of Living Prayerfully: How A Curious Traveler Met the Pope, Walked on Coals, Danced with Rabbis, and Revived His Prayer Life (which I totally recommend, by the way), Jared Brock talks about a conversation he had with a rabbi about mitzvah. The rabbi explained to him that mitzvot are not so much rules as connections. Ways of connecting with God.
For example, when I looked up a list of Hanukkah mitzvot (the plural of mitzvah), I learned that it is forbidden to work by the light of the menorah because that would destroy the mitzvah of having the Hanukkah lights.
You can see that as a law and be very scrupulous, policing everyone you know who is celebrating Hanukkah … or you can understand that a mitzvah is an opportunity for connection with God. It’s an opportunity to set aside work and meditate on, retell, and rejoice in what God did for His people — and what He has done and will do for us. (And just because you try to follow the rules doesn’t mean that you’re legalistic — it’s all about what’s in your heart.)
There is no way that following the Law can save us. We can’t keep all of it. We are saved only by grace through faith — and we can’t even manufacture our own faith. It has to be given to us by God.
There are many things, though, that can help us grow closer to God. And that’s the point of salvation. Jesus said, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” Knowing God is eternal life. It’s not one of the benefits of eternal life, it’s not an optional perq. It’s what eternal life is all about.
There are many things we as Christians do to grow closer to God. Spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, fasting, meditation, silence are some of the traditional ways. Devotions (or devos), worship, Bible study, memorizing God’s Word, listening to sermons or reading things that direct our attention to God and inspire us to grow closer to Him, going on retreats or a hermitage, are other things we do to grow closer to God.
When those things are done out of a sense of obligation and not joy, they become empty and meaningless. Would you like to have your spouse or best friend spend time with you because they felt obligated? Of course not! It would be an insult, wouldn’t it? You want them to want to spend time with you. In the same way, celebrating Hanukkah can become a meaningless obligation if we do it to fulfill law. It can become very meaningful when we see it as a way to draw closer to God by spending time in His presence, by focusing on Him, by glorifying Him.
This Hanukkah, with my dog kibble menorah, has been the most meaningful I’ve ever celebrated. It started out as something of a pity party: Bill was eleven hours away in Maryland for 2-1/2 weeks, so I was lonely. I didn’t have anyone else to celebrate with. I didn’t have my menorah. I didn’t even have decent candles!
I started out feeling sorry for myself, but I felt so drawn to celebrating anyway. This is a great example of what I was saying earlier about God’s grace and how we can’t even manufacture our own faith. God pretty much irresistibly led me to figure out some way, any way, to have my Hanukkah candles. The best I could come up with was dog kibble in a jar holding birthday candles. I wrote about it on Facebook, still feeling sorry for myself, but starting to sense that there was something deeper, so I made it into a post. I started realizing that I wasn’t going to have Hanukkah alone after all. I could celebrate with anyone on our email list who wanted to join me. Several people have told me that they’ve had their first Hanukkah this year — with makeshift menorahs as well, inspired by my dog kibble menorah. They’ve shared with me what the lessons of Hanukkah have meant to them, allowing me to see it through fresh eyes, too. I’ve discussed the lessons of Hanukkah with readers throughout each day, and it has blessed me more than any Hanukkah I’ve celebrated in the past.
At one point during the week, my daughter Kat took me grocery shopping. (I was without a car while Bill was gone, and I don’t walk well these days.) I doubt that I could have found a menorah in Sweetwater, but I could have found something better than dog kibble. I thought about looking for something a little more elegant: A set of glass candle holders, for example. By then, though, that dog kibble had become very meaningful to me.
Isn’t that such a lovely illustration of what it’s like to be with God? He cherishes our inadequate gifts which are offered in love more than He values the flamboyant offerings given out of obligation. (Cf, the widow’s mite.) Not that I won’t use my real menorah in the future. I totally plan to. But I think it will have even more meaning after this year’s experience.
Hanukkah 2017 has been for me a time of rededication, of reflection, of sharpening my focus so that I could share it, of meditating throughout the day on the ways God has protected and provided for me. I’ve still taught my Chinese kids, still worked on my books, still taken care of the zoo that is our home, still watched and wept through the news of fires threatening a place that is near and dear to my heart, and welcomed my lover home. But in among all that, woven throughout my days and nights, and focused during the short time my birthday candles burn in the kibble, has been the Hanukkah Light which “sheds a sweet light.”
That’s the word I would use to describe this Hanukkah more than anything else: Sweet. (And not just because of the jelly donuts. Or Bill’s return home.) It’s been extremely private … and yet shared publicly. It’s been embarrassingly poor … and yet transformingly rich. It’s been lonely and isolated … yet has involved some of the deepest fellowship of the year.
Tomorrow is the last day of Hanukkah and I sense that I won’t be writing (tonight is the final night). Thank you for sharing this Hanukkah with me. It’s meant a lot to have you along for the journey.