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:
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.
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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.