Adding light to the world, a bit at a time

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light. 

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss

It is difficult to determine what is more fantastic: that our Torah is full of such dramatic stories of lies and deceit, or that the main characters in these stories are all the good guys.

Jacob starts the cycle of duplicity. He tricks his father and his brother when he steals the blessing. After running away, his uncle Lavan tricks him into marrying Leah instead of Rachel. Later, his sons Shimon and Levi trick the men of Shechem and slaughter them. The brothers trick Joseph and convince Jacob that Joseph is dead. Tamar tricks Judah into sleeping with her. Finally, when the brothers come down to Egypt, Joseph tricks his brothers –— not once, but twice. 

Lie begets lie and trick begets trick until the ultimate climax of our story, the moment when all becomes revealed: Joseph, tears streaming down his face, turns to his brothers and says the famous words, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”

The only thing that can end the cycle of deceit is just one kernel of truth. The only thing that can end the darkness is just one flicker of light.

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It is no coincidence that each year these stories coincide with the holiday of Hanukkah. Most of us know the classic tale of the holiday, the story of a small army that persevered against a military empire, the weak who emerged victorious against the strong, and the miracle of a small vial of oil that burned for eight days when it should have burned for only one.

There is another version of the story of Hanukkah, though. One that is far less known. One that predates the Maccabees and the Temple. It even predates Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. It is a story that goes all the way back to Adam. The Talmud teaches:

“Our sages taught: Because Adam the First saw the days shortening. He said: Woe unto me! Perhaps it is because I sinned the world is dimming and it will return to chaos and void, and this is the death which was decreed upon me from heaven.” 

Adam, as the first man, knew that his punishment for eating the fruit was that there would be death in the world, but he had never seen anyone die. He did not know what death was. And so as he saw the days becoming shorter, he thought this was his death. He believed that the darkness would continue to increase, the light would decrease, until nothing would remain but the null and void. The story continues: 

“He promptly sat eight days in fasting and prayer. When he observed the winter equinox and he saw the days lengthening, he said: This is the way of the world. He went and established eight days of rejoicing. The following year, he established it as a festival” (Tractate Avodah Zara 8a).

Our times feel very dark right now. It seems that every day we encounter news of terror attacks, gun violence, anti-Semistism and Islamophobia, poverty and hunger, and the list goes on and on. It is hard not to become overwhelmed by the reports, to become paralyzed from doing anything. 

The Talmud reminds us that though the world grows dark, there is a light that always follows the darkness.

However, there is one crucial element of Hanukkah.

As the days reach their shortest, as the nights grow long, as the darkness seems as though it is about to overtake us, we do not just sit around and wait for the days to grow longer. We do the single most important act of Hanukkah: we light a candle. We put light into the world; we take just one small flame of light and we put it in the window, we put it where it can be seen, we put it into the darkness.

We light one light, and then the next day we light another, and the next day we light another, and the next day we light another.

Our job is not to eliminate the darkness in the world. Our job is to put just a little more light into the world. And then to add just a little bit more.

Because darkness will yield more darkness, deceit will yield more deceit, corruption will yield more corruption, sorrow will yield more sorrow. But light will yield more light.

This is the story of Hanukkah, the story of a people who refused to give up when battle seemed futile, when the Menorah could not stay lit, when the darkness threatened to overtake them. Instead, they took the first step, they lit the first light, and they had faith that when they lit those flames, the world would become just a little bit brighter.