In Dark Times, Be A Light

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Victoria Cook

On Chanukah we celebrate the miracle of light – which can feel challenging when we are surrounded by so much darkness, both physically (short winter days) and spiritually by the increase of hate and oppression around the world. It’s especially challenging because the light that we each bring is so often separated from one another. Our souls are isolated, so our lights are too. Chanukah teaches us how to overcome that separation by adding light to light.

We each have our own list of the various sources of darkness in our lives, and there are many. Hate crimes are on the rise, bigotry and racism have become increasingly emboldened, we face the daily grind of struggling against more and more oppressive policies at every turn. How can we be real about the darkness without being pollyanna or pretending it doesn’t hurt people, while at the same time cultivating the inner resources we need to bring light?

Perhaps the real miracle of Chanukah is learning to see even in darkness our obligation to banish that darkness with light. After all, that’s how G-d answered the original darkness – va’y’hi ohr, “let there be light.” Made in God’s image, we too have the capacity to bring light.

Illustration by Steve Silbert

We have an opportunity to further develop this ability during Chanukah – and also each week as Shabbat comes to its close. Each week at havdalah we banish darkness with the unifying light of a multi-wicked candle, representing our souls coming together to create change, transitioning from the restorative sweetness of Shabbat as we act toward building a better world.

Saturday night we return to a posture of creative production, in partnership with G-d after making the blessings of havdalah. #BeALight, a joint project of Bayit: Your Jewish Home, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, and Torah Trumps Hate, invites just that. Each week at havdalah we publicly commit on social media to a concrete step toward building a world of greater justice (for example, “this week I will attend a protest for…” or “this week I will volunteer my time for…” or “This week I will speak out against injustice X,” or “This week I will give tzedakah to Y.”) And then we invite friends to join us in building that world of justice, human dignity, and hope.

For those who already have a practice of making havdalah, #BeALight is an invitation to begin the new week with a concrete action toward building a better world, coming together like the flames of the multi-wicked candle. For those who already have a practice of engaging in social justice work, #BeALight is an invitation to sanctify that work by rooting it in havdalah.

And as for our weekly havdalah, so too for our nightly kindling of Chanukah candles. Each one is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to building a world of renewed justice and love. Our spiritual ancestors took action to purify the Beit HaMikdash. Now at Chanukah we follow in their footsteps, purifying our hearts through engaging in acts that bring light to the world.

The Shlah writes that the 36 candles we light over the course of Chanukah correspond to the 36 hours we communed with God in the Garden. Each night when the Chanukah candles gleam, we remember the hidden light of creation – just as, during havdalah when we hold our hands up to the braided candle, we can glimpse our hidden nature as beings of light, and remind ourselves of the time in the garden before the pain of separation.

Our tradition teaches that part of the original light of creation was reserved for the righteous. The light of each Chanukah candle is also designated as holy – it’s holy and can’t be used for anything mundane. Its purpose is just to be. Simply by existing, the Chanukah lights remind us of the miracles that sustained us in days of old and continue to reverberate in our day. When we look upon those lights this year, how will we be inspired to #BeALight in the world around us?

Just as the menorah in the window tells the world that we celebrate the miracle of the few successfully fighting for rights and dignity, so too can we be a light… and when we post or update or tweet about our commitment to #BeALight, we share our light with the world.

Each of our different and holy souls is a candle for God. So we need to ask ourselves: what do I want my candle to be? Where in the darkness will I shine light? Will it be hidden in the shadows, the closet, in small groups of like minded people? Or “al’pesach baiso m’bechuts,” out in the streets, publicly declaring to the world the light that was, is, and will always be?

In a havdalah candle, flames come together to create something greater than the sum of their parts. As we light the Chanukiyah, each night there is more light than the night before. When we choose to #BeALight and urge others to join us, we too can create more light than before.

The Chanukah candles can represent the strength and sacrifices of all of those brave souls who came before us, risking everything so that we could live and love and be whole. When you light the chanukiah this year, when you light your havdalah candle each week, what light will you bring into the world? What do you want your candle to be?

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat are founding builders at Bayit: Your Jewish Home and Victoria Cook of Torah Trumps Hate.