Lighting the darkness in our soul

By Shai Held

NEW YORK (JTA) — We are all of us afraid of the dark.

At night, anxieties suppressed or repressed come swimming to the surface: Am I safe? Am I loved? Am I needed? Is there meaning in the world, or ultimately is it all just a swirl of chaos?

For some of us much of the time, and for all of us some of the time, darkness suggests peril and instability, the sense that life is fleeting, tenuous, random and senseless. Physical darkness threatens, at least at moments, to conjure existential darkness: It is dark, and I am alone and afraid.

The Talmud reports that Adam and Eve were panic stricken when they first saw the sun go down, thinking that the setting of the sun was a consequence of their sin and this new, intense darkness would spell their death. They spent that entire first night weeping, until dawn broke and they realized, to their immense relief, that this was simply the way of the world — day followed by night, and night followed by day.

We who come after the first couple are aware that night is not permanent, and that morning, too, inevitably will come. And our fears are usually less that night is the outgrowth of our failures and more of what it suggests, of the feelings and concerns that night has the power to elicit.

But if we think of night in metaphorical terms, who among us has never had a foreboding akin to Adam’s: what if night never ends? What if meaningless and loneliness are simply all there is?

We also are aware of profound links between physical darkness and existential darkness — as the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, moods often shift, worries often mount, and hope often wanes.

Judaism does not ask us to ignore this darkness and the sense of doom it might educe. On the contrary, it asks us to face them squarely and defy them. How?

In Genesis, God takes Abram outside and says, “Look toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And God adds, “So shall your offspring be” (Gen. 15:5).

On the surface, the meaning of God’s promise is clear: The children of Abram will be so numerous as to be beyond counting. But the great Chasidic master Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), known as the Sefas Emes, offers a much different and deeply arresting interpretation of God’s promise. God’s promise, he says, is not quantitative but qualitative: To be a Jew is, like a star, to bring light to places of vast darkness. Thus, even and perhaps especially when Israel descends into the darkness of its Egypt, its mission is clear: to light up the darkness of the most depraved and immoral parts of the world (Shemot, 1878).

Let me add one note to the Sefas Emes’ comments. In understanding our mission in the world, there is something crucial to keep in mind about the nature of stars: Stars do not eliminate the darkness but rather mitigate it. They do not turn the world into a palace full of light, but rather find ways to shed light in places that otherwise would be consumed by absolute darkness.

In a similar vein, we ought to be wary, to say the least, of the fantasy that human beings can somehow remove all darkness from human life. Such notions are chimerical at best and unimaginably dangerous at worst. But we can — and to take the covenant between God and Israel seriously is to affirm that we must — bring light into otherwise abandoned places, to bring flashes of meaning and companionship to places otherwise overrun by heartache and devastation.

What does all of this have to do with Hanukkah?

Think for a moment about the central ritual act that marks this holiday. It is winter now: The days are becoming shorter and shorter, and the nights are getting longer. Passover and Sukkot begin in the middle of the Jewish month, when the moon is full. But Hanukkah is different: It begins on the 25th of the month, when the moon has all but completely disappeared.

We are in one of the darkest periods of one of the darkest months of the year. All around us is darkness. And what do we do? We light a fire. Not a bonfire, but a small fire — now one, now another, and so forth for eight nights. In other words, we do not pretend to be the sun but only stars. We do not bring an end to darkness but soften its effects.

“The soul of man is the lamp of God,” the Book of Proverbs tells us (20:27). What this means is that ultimately, our task is not to light candles but to be candles. We have the potential to be the bits of light that help bring God back into a world gone dark.

As the Sefas Emes puts it in discussing Hanukkah, “A human being is created to light up this world” (Hanukkah, 1874).

(Rabbi Shai Held is the co-founder and rosh yeshiva of Mechon Hadar in Manhattan.)