Sunday, November 29, 2015

Light in the Darkness (Chanukah)

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Talmud teaches that when the sun set at the end of the world’s first day, Adam and Eve wept with terror, fearing that it might never rise again.  All that night, they prayed fervently for the light to return, and when morning came, they sang songs of thanksgiving and praise.

We know, on a literal level, that every night will be followed by a new dawn.   But when we find ourselves in dark places emotionally and spiritually, we, too, may very well feel as if we will never again experience light and joy.  How do we find illumination when our life journeys take us into the dark night of the soul?

We can learn from the festival of Chanukah, which always falls around the new moon closest to the winter solstice—which is to say, the darkest days of the darkest month of the year.  Throughout the holiday, we kindle candles—not huge bonfires but small sparks of light, adding a little more illumination each passing night.  Thus we begin to dispel the darkness, bit by bit.

Commenting on this practice, the Hasidic teacher Sfas Emes notes that our challenge is ultimately not just to light candles but to be candles, sharing our inner light with those around us.  One of the great miracles in this world is the ability of a little light to dispel deep darkness.  One small candle can illuminate an entire room.  Every day, legions of ordinary men and women perform countless unnoticed acts of valor.  Violence and destruction make the headlines, but quiet goodness sustains the world.

Over the festival’s eight nights, we burn thirty six Chanukah lights (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8=36).  Yes, I know those little blue boxes actually contain forty-four candles, but eight of them serve as the nightly shamash, the candle used to kindle the others, which is really just a glorified match rather than a symbol of the holiday itself.  Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, author of Seasons of Life, teaches that each Chanukah light represents one of the lamed-vovniks, the legendary thirty six hidden righteous ones of every generation who preserve the world with their light.  Again: light is found in unexpected places, and a little goes a very long way.

This week, as Chanukah approaches, try asking yourself: Where do I find light when my world feels dark?  And what can I do to kindle light—and blessing and hope—for others?

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