Birkat Kohanim: In Search of Light and Peace

31 12 2008

birkatcohanimThese three short verses, taken from the blessings that the kohanim, or priests, are supposed to give to the Israelites (see Numbers 6:24), contain many requests. They ask for blessings, protection, light, kindness, attention, and peace, and I say them every day after the Torah blessings in the morning prayers.

Significantly, I think, these verses of blessing make no mention of happiness. I am opposed to praying for happiness, since I don’t think it’s a realistic request and I don’t believe in praying for the impossible. I believe, of course, in individual moments of happiness, but to ask to be happy overall? Not realistic. Life contains too many tragedies to seek constant happiness. This may go against current trends in positive psychology as exemplified by popular books with titles like Stumbling on Happiness and Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, and maybe this outlook accounts for, or is due to, my sometimes depressed state, but it’s how I feel.

In any case, volumes could be written about each of these, and I yearn with all my being for all of them, but I want to focus on light and peace in this post. When I think of what I pray for the most, it is peace and a sense of fulfillment or purpose in life. Light is a necessary prerequisite for all of those things.

I spend a lot of time in darkness when I am depressed. It can be difficult to explain how pervasive and invasive this darkness seems, and how real it feels on even the sunniest of days. It’s not just that I feel dark and despondent when I am in a depressed period; the entire world around me seems dull, dim, and cloudy. It doesn’t feel like it’s dark here and now, but somewhere else or at some other time, there is light. The darkness that envelopes me with a chilly hug when I am depressed precludes the existence of any light, anywhere.

My all-time favorite verse about light is from Isaiah 58. It refers to light as a kind of justice breaking forth through the injustice and corruption of the world we live in. I can’t equate depression with injustice and corruption by any means, but the kind of light I seek breaks forth as the morning, and includes a strong dose of healing, much like the light of Isaiah 58:8.

ח אָז יִבָּקַע כַּשַּׁחַר אוֹרֶךָ, וַאֲרֻכָתְךָ מְהֵרָה תִצְמָח; וְהָלַךְ לְפָנֶיךָ צִדְקֶךָ, כְּבוֹד יְהוָה יַאַסְפֶךָ. 8 Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the LORD shall be thy rearward.

The first half of the verse that follows, verse 9, is also stunningly beautiful and, in many ways, it sums up my deepest, unexpressed hopes for what prayer can be and do. When will God say, “Here I am”? In some ways, I wonder if my failure to call out in a regular manner, alone, accounts for God’s failure to respond. I have certainly cried enough… In general, I find many of the words of the prophets to either reflect my depressed state or to provide a sense of hope, uplifting, or healing from them.

ט אָז תִּקְרָא וַיהוָה יַעֲנֶה, תְּשַׁוַּע וְיֹאמַר הִנֵּנִי:. 9 Then shalt thou call, and the LORD will answer; thou shalt cry, and He will say: ‘Here I am.’

And what of peace?

When I think of seeking and hoping for peace in my life, I think of stability and normality. I think of waking up in the morning, expressing gratitude for my life, getting up, and going about my day. I think of the absence of the too-oft expressed “Please God, just give me one good reason to keep on living!” thoughts. I think of being able to fully take care of myself the way I deserve to taken care of. I think of being an integral part of a warm, loving, and accepting community. I think of being fully at peace with my family and, more than that, with all the many parts of myself–my reality, my limitations, and the many, great, unrealized possibilities of my life.


“Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

23 12 2008

Chanukah is a usually a sad time of year for me. A friend of mine died eight years ago, on the first night of Chanukah. I spent time with my grandfather over Chanukah in 2003, when he was dying of cancer. After that, I used to light via phone with my grandmother so she wouldn’t have to light alone and now she, too, is gone.

Last year, I spent some time thinking about lighting candles at the darkest time of the year and how Chanukah could stop being solely about sadness and loss for me. I thought about the miracle of Chanukah being not that we won some short-lived military victory against the Seleucids, or that the oil lasted eight days instead of one, but that we bother to light candles during this dark, depressing time of year at all, rather than huddling under the covers and waiting for the sunlight to return.

I thought about this idea a lot in the years immediately following my friend’s death, when I tried to wrap my mind around the idea of celebrating anything on anyone’s yahrzeit. Lighting candles? Singing Hallel? Whatever for? It seems impossible, but, lo and behold!, through the intervention of time, fading memory, and increased focus on the gifts we received from a person during her lifetime, we somehow live to celebrate again.

This idea–that there is value in lighting candles for eight nights simply to celebrate light during the darkest time of the year–is not a modern invention of the ecumenical mind, striving to find a unifying theme behind Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanza. The Talmud itself (Tractate Avoda Zara, 8a) mentions the idea:

ת”ר: לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך אמר, “אוי לי, שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו, וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים!” עמד וישב ח’ ימים בתענית [ובתפלה]. כיון שראה תקופת טבת וראה יום שמאריך והולך אמר “מנהגו של עולם הוא.” הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים

“Our rabbis taught: When Adam saw the days becoming shorter, he said: ‘Woe is to me, because I have sinned and the world is returning to chaos!’ He prayed and fasted until the winter equinox when he noticed the days becoming longer. ‘This is the way of the world,’ he said, and he established an eight day festival.'”

I don’t know about you, but I have many days during the darkness of December (as well as October and November) when I think, “Woe is to me…the world is returning to chaos!” Whether I attribute this to my own sins or not is a separate matter entirely. But, my God! You don’t need to have to have full-fledged Seasonal Affective Disorder to fear the clutching darkness of winter!

Unlike Adam, we do not need to pray and fast to ensure the continuation of our world. Instead, we rely on our experiences from the past, of woe and chaos descending upon us and then, in time, being lifted, to know that, as Adam said,  “This is the way of the world.”

The idea that chaos and darkness are an inherent part of the world is integral to my theology. My God who is the God who is “יוצר אור ובורא חשך,” “creator of light and creates darkness.” [See blessings before the morning Sh’ma.] I don’t believe in a God who is all lightness. I believe in a God who creates darkness, too. I don’t understand the darkness most of the time, but I believe that it comes from God. Hand-in-hand with this belief comes the faith that, as the morning follows the night, spiritual and emotional light inevitably follow the deepest darkness.

The world is a mean, nasty place sometimes. Some nights, some Decembers of the soul, seem interminable. Depression always feels like a forever state to me–like I always was, and will always be, depressed. Even though I may intellectually recognize that I was not always depressed, that it comes and goes, my emotional memory is of the past being one big black pit, which no sunlight could permeate. Somehow, my experience of depression lessening in the past does not carry through to the present. Being unable to recall past happinesses is only one of the many curses of depression. But these flickering Chanukah candles remind me, in a tangible way, that this is false. They are a device to remind us that it is not always dark. Light is a real possibility. Dawn will approach, and whether I try to hasten its approach by lighting candles or by sitting in front of a light box or not, it will come. It will come, and I don’t need to sit weeping and lamenting in the darkness until it does. I can do something about it. I can light candles.

Despite Noah’s and our worst fears, God will not return the world to chaos. That is the covenant that God made with Noah and all of humanity after the flood. This is the miracle of Chanukah for me–that we have faith in “יוצר אור ובורא חשך,” “creator of light and creates darkness”–that we actually go ahead and light candles in the darkness, that we combine our faith in God’s hand in our lives with our own efforts at hastening the arrival of the dawn.

During Chanukah, it is customary to recite the 30th Psalm, because of the connection between the Maccabean rededication of the Temple and the original dedication of the Temple. In a beautiful confluence, this verse speaks to  the idea of a God who creates light and darkness, and a God who promises not to let us languish in the pit forever although he makes no promises against us falling into that dark space in the first place. Some of the most relevant verses to that theme are highlighted below:

א מִזְמוֹר: שִׁיר-חֲנֻכַּת הַבַּיִת לְדָוִד. 1 A Psalm; a Song at the Dedication of the House; of David.
ב אֲרוֹמִמְךָ יְהוָה, כִּי דִלִּיתָנִי; וְלֹא-שִׂמַּחְתָּ אֹיְבַי לִי. 2 I will extol thee, O LORD, for Thou hast raised me up, and hast not suffered mine enemies to rejoice over me.
ג יְהוָה אֱלֹהָי– שִׁוַּעְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ, וַתִּרְפָּאֵנִי. 3 O LORD my God, I cried unto Thee, and Thou didst heal me;
ד יְהוָה–הֶעֱלִיתָ מִן-שְׁאוֹל נַפְשִׁי; חִיִּיתַנִי, מיורדי- (מִיָּרְדִי-) בוֹר . 4 O LORD, Thou broughtest up my soul from the nether-world; Thou didst keep me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.
ה זַמְּרוּ לַיהוָה חֲסִידָיו; וְהוֹדוּ, לְזֵכֶר קָדְשׁוֹ. 5 Sing praise unto the LORD, O ye His godly ones, and give thanks to His holy name.
ו כִּי רֶגַע, בְּאַפּוֹ– חַיִּים בִּרְצוֹנוֹ:
בָּעֶרֶב, יָלִין בֶּכִי; וְלַבֹּקֶר רִנָּה.
6 For His anger is but for a moment, His favour is for a life-time; weeping may tarry for the night, but joy cometh in the morning.
ז וַאֲנִי, אָמַרְתִּי בְשַׁלְוִי– בַּל-אֶמּוֹט לְעוֹלָם. 7 Now I had said in my security: ‘I shall never be moved.’
ח יְהוָה– בִּרְצוֹנְךָ, הֶעֱמַדְתָּה לְהַרְרִי-עֹז:
הִסְתַּרְתָּ פָנֶיךָ; הָיִיתִי נִבְהָל.
8 Thou hadst established, O LORD, in Thy favour my mountain as a stronghold– Thou didst hide Thy face; I was affrighted.
ט אֵלֶיךָ יְהוָה אֶקְרָא; וְאֶל-אֲדֹנָי, אֶתְחַנָּן. 9 Unto Thee, O LORD, did I call, and unto the LORD I made supplication:
י מַה-בֶּצַע בְּדָמִי, בְּרִדְתִּי אֶל-שָׁחַת:
הֲיוֹדְךָ עָפָר; הֲיַגִּיד אֲמִתֶּךָ
10 ‘What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise Thee? shall it declare Thy truth?
יא שְׁמַע-יְהוָה וְחָנֵּנִי; יְהוָה, הֱיֵה-עֹזֵר לִי. 11 Hear, O LORD, and be gracious unto me; LORD, be Thou my helper.’
יב הָפַכְתָּ מִסְפְּדִי, לְמָחוֹל לִי: פִּתַּחְתָּ שַׂקִּי; וַתְּאַזְּרֵנִי שִׂמְחָה. 12 Thou didst turn for me my mourning into dancing; Thou didst loose my sackcloth, and gird me with gladness;
יג לְמַעַן, יְזַמֶּרְךָ כָבוֹד– וְלֹא יִדֹּם:
יְהוָה אֱלֹהַי, לְעוֹלָם אוֹדֶךָּ.
13 So that my glory may sing praise to Thee, and not be silent;
O LORD my God, I will give thanks unto Thee for ever.

I will write more about this psalm when I get to that part of Shacharit, but for now, I will say that this Psalm reflects my belief that God does hide his face. We do become frightened as Adam did when the days seemed about to shrink into oblivion. But God eventually turns our mourning into dancing. God promises us that nothing that is bad will be bad forever. Redemption will come. We will be girded with gladness one day, and live to praise God again.

It sometimes seems like extreme folly to praise the God who brings darkness, the God who causes the days to shorten, the God who takes away the dawn of friends, family, and life itself, and who causes us to gird ourselves with sackcloth in the first place. I choose to believe, instead, that such praise of God is part of the miracle of faith, of recovery, and of the dawn that follows the darkness.

* * * * *

Postscript: I wrote most of this for Chanukah last year. To be perfectly honest, it is much more hopeful than I feel at the moment. The weeping is tarrying for much longer than a night and for much longer than I would like, and the dawn of joy seems impossibly far away. However, I am still lighting Chanukah candles, so perhaps there is still hope. Sometimes you just do the actions and the feelings follow later.