By Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt
Part of the Jewish psyche is the willingness throughout our history is our willingness to challenge the norm, to be willing to go against the grain, to question and thereby uproot prevailing notions. In the latter part of the 19th century a boy in Germany listened to his science teacher explain that there are two situations in nature – light and darkness. A child in the class disagreed, and told his teacher that there is only light. Darkness, he said, is the lack of light.
That child was Albert Einstein.
At this time of year, as the days grow shorter, night comes sooner and lasts longer, it may appear that the world around us is getting darker quicker. It may also seem that with the terrible covid pandemic, it is metaphorically getting darker as well.
At times like this, it is worth remembering what Einstein stated. If we experience darkness, it is because we have moved away from the light.
The famous debate in the Talmud between the School of Hillel and Shammai centered on this matter: Do we begin the first night of Chanukah by lighting 8 candles, and then decrease it by one each night, as Shammai advocated? Or do we do follow Hillel who said we should light one on the first night and then add a candle each night. Obviously Hillel won that debate. And the reason he won it is because our sages said that our role as Jews is to add light to the world, not diminish it.
In the book of Genesis it is said that God created us in His Divine image and then poured a portion of His spirit into us. The kabbalists, Jewish mystics, tell us that since God is the source of light, therefore there is light in each of us.
Combining Einstein’s observation with the kabbalistic understanding, those who are in the dark do not see the light in themselves or the light at the end of the tunnel fail to see the light God has placed in the world, and in each of us. When that happens, we should look for light, and be willing to ask for help to find the light, for we are not alone, and need not search in the dark.
Each of us has confronted times when we have experienced darkness. It could be a feeling of having been betrayed, or grief for what we lost, disappointment for not getting something we thought we were entitled to get, or the pain of being let down by a friend. It could be anger over choices others have made for us, or about us, leading to rejection or shame or loneliness.
Being in an all-encompassing worldwide pandemic was not anticipated and part of our plan. Its consequences have been so overwhelming, devastating and depressing for many. But in times like this, hope can illuminate the dark recesses of the soul.
When Joseph was in the pit, when he was in prison, he could have despaired and given up. Instead, because of his faith in God, he did not lose hope and did not lose faith in himself. When he was in the Egyptian prison, Joseph was attentive to the other prisoners. When he noticed two prisoners who felt depressed, he did not ignore them. He asked them, “Why are your faces sad today?” It was a question that ultimately led to his release from prison.
As we all know, the easiest way to combat darkness is to light a candle. The light given off by one small is enough to overcome a sea of darkness. The light from a lighthouse can guide ships on their journey home. A single northern star can direct ships back to safe harbor. When we reach out and share our light with others, we banish darkness and bring light, evoking the image of Van Gough’s masterpiece “Starry Night.”
Joseph, as well as the Maccabees and countless Jews in many lands, spread out across the globe throughout the generations, were inspired by their belief in God, their knowledge of Torah, and understanding of our mission as Jews – to have the courage to stand alone, to be willing to go against the majority, even when it is a cruel and mighty, tyrannical oppressive majority, to preserve our heritage – a precious heritage of hope.
One of the most popular Israeli songs for the holiday of Chanukah is “Banu hoshekh legaresh,” which means “We come to drive away the darkness.” It continues, “beyadenu or v’esh: In our hands are light and fire. Each one (of us) is a small light. Together, all of us are a mighty light. Away with the darkness… make way for the light.”
The glorious tradition we have inherited, the historical narrative of the Jewish people calls upon us to carry on the legacy of bringing light to the world. As we light all of the candles on our chanukiyot tonight, the last night of Chanukah, we continue to be part of the chain of generations of the Jewish people who bring light where there is darkness.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the founding rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek of Potomac, Maryland and chairman of the Zionist Rabbinic Coalition.