The First Fire And The Human Capacity To Banish Darkness

7 12 2012

As we prepare to go into the earliest Shabbat of the year (ugh) and then Chanukah (yay?), let us remember: God gave us both darkness and the tools for eradicating it.

“The Fire” – Rabbi Levi said: The light which was created on the first day of creation served for 36 hours after Adam ate from the tree: from Friday until Saturday night. […] Once Shabbat came out, [the first] darkness began to arrive. Adam became fearful and said: “This is what God said when he cursed me upon eating from the tree – the snake will come and bite me!”
Said Rabbi Levi: At that time God presented Adam with two flints. He struck them together and a fire burst forth. He blessed them saying: בורא מאורי האש – “the creator of fire.”
Shmuel said: Therefore we say the blessing for fire on motzaei Shabbat [Saturday night after Shabbat ends] – because that is the origin of its creation.

–Talmud Yerushalmi, Brachot 8:5

האש – רבי לוי בשם רבי בזירה שלשים ושש שעות שימשה אותה האורה שנבראת ביום הראשון. שתים עשרה בערב שבת ושתים עשרה בליל שבת ושתים עשרה בשבת

כיון שיצאת שבת התחיל משמש החושך ובא ונתירא אדם ואמר אלו הוא שכתב בו (בראשית ג) הוא ישופך ראש ואתה תשופנו עקב שמא בא לנשכני ואמר (תהילים קל) אך חשך ישופני. אמר רבי לוי באותו שעה זימן הקב”ה שני רעפין והקישן זה לזה ויצא מהן האור הדא הוא דכתיב (שם) ולילה אור בעדני ובירך עליה בורא מאורי האש. שמואל אמר לפיכך מברכין על האש במוצאי שבתות שהיא תחילת ברייתה.

תלמוד ירושלמי ברכות דף ס,ב פרק ח הלכה ה–


Psalm 116: “Return, O my soul, unto thy rest”

16 12 2009

I don’t have a plan yet for the long-term viability of this project, but, in the spirit of the “one day at a time” attitude that I am desperately trying to cultivate in myself, I had a short thought that I would like to share in honor of Chanukah, the holiday of light and the redemptive power of hope. (See this post from last year for a longer thought about Chanukah.) I also wanted to thank you all for your comments, both public and private. They mean the world to me. And, rest assured that I won’t continue with this if I decide that it isn’t good for me. I need to balance that feeling, though, with the thought that it might just actually be my best chance at (psychological, if not spiritual) redemption. Scary. (Oh, let’s be realistic, what isn’t?)

Psalm 116 appears in the Hallel that we say every morning during Chanukah.

Psalms Chapter 116 תְּהִלִּים

א אָהַבְתִּי, כִּי-יִשְׁמַע יְהוָה–    אֶת-קוֹלִי, תַּחֲנוּנָי. 1 I love that the LORD should hear my voice and my supplications.
ב כִּי-הִטָּה אָזְנוֹ לִי;    וּבְיָמַי אֶקְרָא. 2 Because He hath inclined His ear unto me, therefore will I call upon Him all my days.
ג אֲפָפוּנִי, חֶבְלֵי-מָוֶת–וּמְצָרֵי שְׁאוֹל מְצָאוּנִי;    צָרָה וְיָגוֹן אֶמְצָא. 3 The cords of death compassed me, and the straits of the nether-world got hold upon me; I found trouble and sorrow.
ד וּבְשֵׁם-יְהוָה אֶקְרָא:    אָנָּה יְהוָה, מַלְּטָה נַפְשִׁי. 4 But I called upon the name of the LORD: ‘I beseech thee, O LORD, deliver my soul.’
ה חַנּוּן יְהוָה וְצַדִּיק;    וֵאלֹהֵינוּ מְרַחֵם. 5 Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; yea, our God is compassionate.
ו שֹׁמֵר פְּתָאיִם יְהוָה;    דַּלֹּתִי, וְלִי יְהוֹשִׁיעַ. 6 The LORD preserveth the simple; I was brought low, and He saved me.
ז שׁוּבִי נַפְשִׁי, לִמְנוּחָיְכִי:    כִּי-יְהוָה, גָּמַל עָלָיְכִי. 7 Return, O my soul, unto thy rest; for the LORD hath dealt bountifully with thee.
ח כִּי חִלַּצְתָּ נַפְשִׁי, מִמָּוֶת:    אֶת-עֵינִי מִן-דִּמְעָה; אֶת-רַגְלִי מִדֶּחִי. 8 For Thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.
ט אֶתְהַלֵּךְ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה–    בְּאַרְצוֹת, הַחַיִּים. 9 I shall walk before the LORD in the lands of the living.
י הֶאֱמַנְתִּי, כִּי אֲדַבֵּר;    אֲנִי, עָנִיתִי מְאֹד. 10 I trusted even when I spoke: ‘I am greatly afflicted.’
יא אֲנִי, אָמַרְתִּי בְחָפְזִי:    כָּל-הָאָדָם כֹּזֵב. 11 I said in my haste: ‘All men are liars.’
יב מָה-אָשִׁיב לַיהוָה–    כָּל-תַּגְמוּלוֹהִי עָלָי. 12 How can I repay unto the LORD all His bountiful dealings toward me?
יג כּוֹס-יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא;    וּבְשֵׁם יְהוָה אֶקְרָא. 13 I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD.
יד נְדָרַי, לַיהוָה אֲשַׁלֵּם;    נֶגְדָה-נָּא, לְכָל-עַמּוֹ. 14 My vows will I pay unto the LORD, yea, in the presence of all His people.
טו יָקָר, בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה–    הַמָּוְתָה, לַחֲסִידָיו. 15 Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints.
טז אָנָּה יְהוָה,    כִּי-אֲנִי עַבְדֶּךָ:
אֲנִי-עַבְדְּךָ, בֶּן-אֲמָתֶךָ;    פִּתַּחְתָּ, לְמוֹסֵרָי.
16 I beseech Thee, O LORD, for I am Thy servant; {N}
I am Thy servant, the son of Thy handmaid; Thou hast loosed my bands.
יז לְךָ-אֶזְבַּח, זֶבַח תּוֹדָה;    וּבְשֵׁם יְהוָה אֶקְרָא. 17 I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the LORD.
יח נְדָרַי, לַיהוָה אֲשַׁלֵּם;    נֶגְדָה-נָּא, לְכָל-עַמּוֹ. 18 I will pay my vows unto the LORD, yea, in the presence of all His people;
יט בְּחַצְרוֹת, בֵּית יְהוָה–    בְּתוֹכֵכִי יְרוּשָׁלִָם:
19 In the courts of the LORD’S house, in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem. {N}

The entire Psalm is beautiful.

Here, in the middle of the joyous Hallel, where mountains dance like rams, we admit that we are, right now, in a place of “trouble and sorrow.”

Now that I look, I see that other parts of Hallel also contain a strong element of calling out to God from the narrow place, or מיצר. For some reason, I always had the impression of Hallel being a wholly celebratory, happy sort of collection of Psalms (that I loved to hate on when depressed). I probably had that assumption because we say it at celebratory occasions, like Chanukah, Sukkot, Pesach, and Rosh Chodesh. Also, probably, because this Psalm as well as many of the others is expressing the point of view of a person who has already been saved or redeemed: “וְלִי יְהוֹשִׁיעַ.” “He saved me.” “כִּי חִלַּצְתָּ נַפְשִׁי, מִמָּוֶת:    אֶת-עֵינִי מִן-דִּמְעָה; אֶת-רַגְלִי מִדֶּחִי.” “For Thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.” But before today, I never noticed that some of Hallel can be read as coming from a place of deep despair.

I think that my favorite line from this Psalm is the fervent hope expressed in these distressed words from the seventh verse:
“!שׁוּבִי נַפְשִׁי, לִמְנוּחָיְכִי”
“Let my soul return to your rest!”

My soul, which was once at rest and at peace, is no longer. I beseech you, God, to return my soul to your rest, to your peace, to your comfort. Please God, listen to me, and speak to me, and, most importantly, let me hear your words and feel your eternal presence in my life.

The word, “מְנוּחָיְכִי” which comes from the root נח, or rest, has many connotations to me. Rest and comfort, but also, somehow, a loving embrace of God. Perhaps because it sounds (a little bit) like the word חיבוק, or hug. I don’t know why.

I am certainly not feeling that מנוחה, or rest, at the moment, but it’s times like these that I am so glad that I have these resources at my disposal. These words, in my lips and on my heart, with which to say:

Please, God, let me have back what I once had.

Please, God, let me have the kind of peaceful, restful soul that I imagine that others have, that may have always eluded me.

Please, God, incline your ear towards me. Be gracious and compassionate even when I cannot be. Especially when I cannot be.

And if it’s not quite true that “הֶאֱמַנְתִּי, כִּי אֲדַבֵּר;    אֲנִי, עָנִיתִי מְאֹד,” “I trusted even when I spoke: ‘I am greatly afflicted,'” well, maybe saying the words makes it so. In this case, I sort of think it does. Whatever reason I say these words, my saying them, in the midst of my great affliction, means that I still have hope or trust in God, or something greater than myself and my own deep personal pain and sorrow. I must still believe, a teeny tiny bit, in redemption, or I wouldn’t say these words.

And, finally, the words that get me every time:

ט אֶתְהַלֵּךְ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה–    בְּאַרְצוֹת, הַחַיִּים. 9 I shall walk before the LORD in the lands of the living.

I shall. Because that’s where God wants me, and that’s where I will be able to “כּוֹס-יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא” or “lift up the cup of salvation.”

Happy Chanukah!

“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.