Bringing Light in the Darkness

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, November 26, 2020

According to legend, when Adam and Eve saw in autumn the days were growing shorter, they became worried and anxious, thinking that the setting of the sun was a punishment. They feared the increasing darkness, assuming that the world was returning to its primordial state of chaos and disorder. So, for eight days they fasted and prayed. Once they saw that the winter solstice, had arrived, and that the days were lengthening, they were relieved that this was the natural order of the world and declared an eight-day festival in celebration. Every year at the same season, Adam and Eve continued this celebration of the light returning. (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 8a).

We are all afraid of the dark. At night when all is quiet, our worries and anxieties come to the surface of our conscious mind. Physical darkness can sometimes bring up worries of existential darkness: I am alone. I am afraid. Am I safe? Am I needed? Am I loved?

Unlike the first human beings, we, thankfully, are aware of the change in seasons and that night is not permanent. Each morning when we awaken, we pray words of thanks for the returning of light. And we recognize that our nighttime fears and feelings usually will pass. But we do know that as the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, we may feel more worried, anxious, and sad. We may find it harder to look for light in the darkness.

While most of us are familiar with the story of the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil in the Temple, this story about Adam and Eve is another of the origin stories of the festival of Hannukah. It acknowledges our feelings of loneliness and existential worry. This year, long before the days had begun to grow shorter, we have felt that the light is diminished. We have encountered feelings of darkness. Judaism does not ask us to ignore this darkness. Instead, we have a holiday that acknowledges it, and calls upon us to be bringers of light. As the Jewish proverb says, “A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness.”

Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, when the moon has all but completely disappeared. It is winter and the days are getting progressively shorter as the nights grow longer and longer. This is one of the darkest periods of one of the darkest months of the year. All around us is darkness. Yet, the central ritual of Hanukkah is to face the darkness by bringing in sparks of light.

Also in the Talmud, the great rabbis Hillel and Shammai disagree over how the lights of Hanukkah should be lit. Shammai teaches that on the first day one kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last day of Hanukkah, he kindles one light. But Hillel says: On the first day one kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases the number of lights until, on the last day, we kindle eight lights. (Talmud Shabbat 21b). The rabbinic ruling is to follow Rabbi Hillel, to progressively increase the light in the darkness. As Rabbi David Seidenberg teaches, “If darkness nurtures the light, then Chanukah is a time when we are planting seeds of light. That is what the tiny flames of the Chanukah candles really look like, after all.”

This Hanukkah, as we light our menorahs, we look for ways to find and share joy, light, healing, and blessings. With each new candle may we send this light to the people and places in our community and our world so in need of illumination. This year, as we light the Hanukkah candles, let us transform the darkness from this past year into light.

Chag Hanukkah Sameach!

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

Filed under: Rabbi's Message

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