When I cook in my kitchen, I have a lot of company. I sometimes speak aloud to my grandmother who helps me intuit when the recipe “looks right.” My father looks on when I make pizza—none was better than his. My mother-in-law sits at the kitchen table recopying her recipes, telling me stories about her life. They are blessed and welcome spirits who provide context for my life.
But I have other company, too—sometimes in my kitchen, but not always. They come unbidden, but are welcome. They teach me to receive every moment of life not in expectation, but as an astonishing and treasured gift—and above all—as a limited resource.
They are the souls who treasured a crumbling crust of bread from their meager prisoners rations in the labor camps. They are the mothers and children who starved in the siege of Leningrad. They are our ancestors who were caught in sieges when the first and second Temples fell, or when the Crusaders crushed their lives. They are the helpless and voiceless pawns caught in current national and global conflicts. They are our neighbors, nearby and a world away. And they remind me that human suffering at the hands of tyrants cannot be sorted into neat columns of place and time and nationality or placed in historical context. They provide context for the way people behave in the world.
Understandably, we try to do this, especially when the reality of the human capacity to harm others makes us feel as if we can’t breathe, either. It’s all just too big to grasp. But really, the tragedies are not about sheer numbers, nor the depth of an oppressor’s depravity. Every tragedy is individual. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters—whose precious lives were cut short in the name of ideologies – were all once babes dandled on their parents’ knees.
I have no idea how those who survive/d in the most extreme suffering manage/d to open their eyes each morning. I would like to think I could, somehow, to be resourceful enough to not starve or freeze to death. To do whatever it would take. Would I be strong enough? Perhaps. Would the overwhelming pain of it all make my soul long to flee my body? Very likely. Would I be able to pray? I’m not so sure—because when I see the news, I am not so sure I can pray today, either.
The cultures that razed the temples to the ground, brought about the horror of the crusades, and the scourge of the diabolical reign of madmen in the last century were easily identifiable enemies. But the threat we now face is more insidious, and just as deadly. It emerged over the years with war games and paintball and laser tag and the Hunger Games. And today, just as in ancient Jerusalem, the oppressor’s culture is alluring to many even as it destroys the lives of innocents. Today, though, we have no idea if our neighbors are among those who are armed and ready to do harm to others and claim it as their right. Today, we do not know if our children are safe in their schools. How did this happen? In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Last Sunday was the second yahrzeit of those who were murdered in Sandy Hook. That town is right next door. Literally. Members of my congregation live there. And they will never, ever live “normal” lives again. Their friends and neighbors lost their children, their innocence, their sense of physical security and for many, their faith in humankind—forever. Children all over town have been traumatized beyond description. In Sandy Hook, as in all other communities in which such tragedies occur, the earth spins slightly off its axis.
Since that infamous day, over 70,000 of your neighbors have been senselessly murdered with guns, and another 200.000 have been wounded. The scale of these atrocities add up to staggering numbers while the ability of their assailants to be armed to the teeth (some 300 million weapons in civilian hands) is each day protected in the name of the chilling ideology that a one’s right to own a gun outweighs the rights of children (and all of us) to live in security. How powerful is the fear of an enemy that cannot be identified! We would, as a nation, never tolerate such an assault from an external enemy. And yet, it is nothing short of terrorism. In truth, the earth is spinning of its axis for all of us.
Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel said, when he attended a demonstration against the Vietnam war, “I am here because I cannot pray.” I get it. The anger and frustration have to be channeled into positive, wise and compassionate action.
And I have to ask each morning: what can I do to be worthy of this day, of the breath I draw? If I cannot utter a prayer, is there some way I can BE a prayer? Can I find the wisdom and strength to do whatever it will take, even in my own small way? I think of the Maccabees who were small in number and mighty in the strength that they drew down from the Creator of all life, and of the light and love and justice that are commanded to bring into the world. Like the oil that burned miraculously in the menorah of old, will I be able to burn bright enough, for long enough?
Think of Yael, who risked her life to ensure that the Maccabees would be victorious. Think of Judah and Mattathius who lead the few and the brave. We know our ancestors’ names not because they set out to do something earth-changing—but because they did something—and that something, eventually, changed the world. They remind us that when we respond to the call for justice, and do something—we are worthy of our breath – praying with each small act, lighting one small light at a time—and changing the world.
Since I moved to the Pacific Northwest a decade ago, people ask me how I deal with all the rain. Yes, it does rain a lot, but that doesn’t bother me. What did surprise me when I first moved here, and I still have trouble getting used to, is the early nightfall in winter. The reduced sunlight in winter feels very pronounced in this corner of the US, with sunset coming around 4 p.m. in the dead of winter.
And while the routines of life continue normally, there is one slight adjustment I make to my schedule in winter: I turn on my “happy light.”
A “happy light” is a colloquial term to describe a full-spectrum lamp, a lamp that gives off far more light than a standard lamp. It is used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder, a documented condition wherein, specifically during winter, people will exhibit symptoms such as fatigue, lack of energy and concentration, tendency to overeat, and others. Since it is connected to decreased sun exposure, the lamp provides “light therapy” whereby exposure to the light is meant to counteract this absence of sunlight.
Now, do I clinically have Seasonal Affective Disorder? I don’t know, but I know during winter I tend to exhibit the aforementioned symptoms of fatigue and less motivation. And does the happy light work? I don’t know either, but it does feel good to get more light exposure during these dark times.
To use a happy light, one simply turns it on while carrying out normal functions. I usually put it on in the morning, so it is on while I have my morning coffee, fix breakfast for my kids and prepare lunches. The light is not meant to be used functionally as a normal lamp—i.e., lighting up a room or used for reading—rather one is meant to look upon it indirectly, and by doing so, maximize one’s exposure to the increased light in order to affect an internal change.
Today is the first day of Hanukkah. Last night we lit the first candle of this eight-day festival of lights. While we celebrate the historical story of the Maccabees and their victory over the ruling Greeks in the 2nd century BCE, and the rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem to Jewish use, it is not a surprise that we celebrate a festival involving light during the darkest time of the year. Hanukkah overlaps with Rosh Hodesh Tevet, the celebration of the new month of Tevet. And as Rosh Hodesh is marked by the new moon (that is, no moon) and this month includes the winter solstice, one night of Hanukkah falls on the darkest night of the month that is closest to the longest night of the year.
So we create light to combat the effects of the darkness, and not just the physical darkness. Lighting the menorah is a form of “light therapy” to combat the spiritual darkness that surrounds us. Like the “happy light,” the Hanukkah candles are not meant to be functional or used practically, but are meant to be gazed upon to maximize one’s exposure to the increased light in order to affect an internal change.
How does it work? First, light the menorah. And when you look at the illuminated Hanukkah menorah, ask yourself these questions: What is the darkness that brings you down? Where in your life do you need illumination? What broken aspects of our society need to be exposed and brought to light? In what parts of your life do you burn bright?
Asking these questions and more will allow the light of the menorah to penetrate your inner being, And that should make us happy.
The week began with me feeling self-conscious gesturing with my hands and glittery purple nails. I recently read Rebecca Sirbu’s piece about how rarely we heed life’s painful reminders that this is it. To honor the memory of a friend she had lost, she wore a purple hair extension for a week. When I read Rebecca’s reflection, I recalled how much I wanted to paint my nails. I wrote Rebecca my thanks for her piece. I shared what I wanted to do, and my hesitation about doing it. I was afraid it would be too distracting to the students I teach, or my hospice patients and their families.
As a queer man, I have learned not to take my safety for granted. Several times a year, I am the target of harassment: when I walk down the street, people occasionally shout “faggot!”. In my rabbinic work, my sense of unsafety is more subtle. People remark on how “young” I look, a perception I attribute not only to being 32, but also being queer and small-framed. “Looking young” is often code for inexperienced, not wise, or not fit for the rabbinate. To protect myself from these judgments, I sometimes feel I have to dress in ways that make me appear older or more normatively “masculine”.
As Hanukkah begins, we are instructed to “publicize the miracle” (pirsum ha’nes) of the jar of oil that lasted eight days. The rabbis of the Talmud state, “It is a commandment to place the Hanukkah lamp by the outside door of the house. If one dwells in an upper apartment, one places it by the window nearest the street. But in times of danger it is sufficient to leave it on the table” (Shabbat 21b). Though I am largely safe as a Jew, I am not always sure I am safe as a queer male. As I look back over this week, I realize how many times I was tempted to put my hands into my pockets to hide my nails.
After I painted my nails, I taught middle and high school students. In one of my classes a teen asked, “Rabbi Adam, what’s on your hands?” I told him it was nail polish. He asked, “Who painted them?” “I did one hand, my partner did the other”, I replied. He asked “Who?” I repeated, “My partner.” After he asked a third time, I said, with hesitation, “My boyfriend.” Which he responded to by inquiring, “How do you say nail-polish in Hebrew?” As third period approached, I felt anticipatory dread about the response of my class of Jewish teen boys – historically not a “safe” environment for me. Instead of the comments I would have expected during my teenage years had I worn nail polish, they exclaimed, “Cool color!” and asked “Did you pick that because it matches your eyes?”
These days, the sun races through the sky. Each day is short. As the moon wanes, the night’s darkness deepens. Each year at this time, it is easy for me to despair, to believe the light will never return. At this darkest time of the year, we are instructed to light a light. Some of us do it in secret, some visibly. The Talmud says we always have the option to hide this light when we feel we’re in danger. Despite this, I know I have ancestors who, even in times of danger, displayed their lit menorahs in their windows. They recognized that hiding does not always create a sense of safety.
When I told Rebecca my concerns about wearing nail polish, she responded, “What color do you want to do your nails?” Perhaps, as a queer man, it’s time I began to publicize the miracle of acceptance, of relative safety I am finding. The miracle is that it is safe to flame, to shine my light. This Hanukkah, I know I’ll be flaming all eight nights.
I am a person particularly affected by sunlight, aware of a shift in my body and mood that coincides with the shift back to Standard Time in late fall. Introspective in the darker season, I engage in my inward stretch more than in than my outward reach. I seem to sit on ideas in winter and hatch them in spring.
Walking home in the dark last evening, I found myself thinking rather vaguely about projects I am gestating, enjoying this amorphous moment in my own creative process, experiencing my internal rhythm as synchronistic with our sacred calendar. We’re a week and more into Kislev, our darkest month. The proportion of darkness to light will continue to rise until the winter solstice, which will occur during Hanukkah. Then the tide will turn and our daylight hours will begin to increase again.
The name of our month shares a Hebrew root with a biblical word for trust – “kislah.” I like to think that during Kislev we are invited to trust that just as our babies develop in our dark and fertile wombs, so, too, our thoughts and innovations incubate in our generative interior selves. We are not privy to what is germinating in us but we trust it will emerge whole and healthy. Our dark month can prompt us to cultivate patience with the maturation of a formative spark as it goes underground and roots in the rich dark of the subconscious where we seek solutions in privacy even from ourselves.
Our “kislah” is trust in the miraculous way we continuously nourish ideas we cannot yet articulate, until our ideas and strategies are ready to reveal themselves as shaped products of our ingenuity. That’s when they come to light.
In this particular moment of Ferguson’s grand jury decision, terror during the prayer at Har Nof, ISIS slaughter of innocents, and the vandalizing of the Max Rayne Hand in Hand school, I’ve been feeling the tug of hopelessness. Darkness of a sinister sort is brewing in our world and I am unable to imagine how I can make a difference. I think I would fall to despair if I did not trust that somewhere beneath my surface good and divinely inspired ideas for tikkun olam are constantly brewing.
Living these darkening weeks aware that I associate darkness with the fertile unknown that holds potential for all possibilities helps me remember the merit of equanimity; innovations take time to coalesce and emerge. Living Kislev as if it was a pregnancy is helping me to trust that I am gestating answers perpetually nourished by the stream of divine light indwelling within me, and to trust that light is, miraculously, always growing in my darkness.
Yes, everyone in the Jewish world and beyond knows today is Thankgivukkah. But there’s another quirk of the calendar that Hanukkah gives us every year—and is one that very few people seem to know about.
It just so happens that the night we light the seventh candle is always also one of the darkest nights of the year. Not the shortest night, but the darkest night, owing to the new, tiny, sliver of a moon — Rosh Hodesh Tevet, the new month of Tevet, begins at sundown of the seventh night of Hanukkah. In other words, the seventh night of Hanukkah is one of two nights that are closest to the winter solstice on which there is no visible moon. (The second is Rosh Hodesh Shevat, which falls on January 1st this year.)
I highly doubt that this was an intentional placement on the calendar. It’s just as “planned” as the fact that we’re likely to be in the Torah portions telling the Joseph story during Hanukkah, as well—the seventh night of Hanukkah falls on this ultra-dark night of the year occurs just because a few different ways of setting Jewish time happen to coincide. But I find that there’s something quite powerful in knowing that the seventh night of Hanukkah is the night that most requires us kindle lights.
On the seventh night, our Hanukkiah is almost full. With eight of the nine candles flickering in the window, we see almost all of our lights. As Hanukkah in general reminds us of holding onto hope in the most difficult times, lighting the Hanukkiah reminds us that we can bring light even in the darkest times. And on this dark night, we are using almost all of our candles to bring some light into this world.
But the key word there is “almost”—we are not bringing all of our lights. We might think that it would be great if this dark night happened to fall on the eighth night, the night on which our Hanukkiah is full and we would make a powerful statement that “Even in our darkest times, we can bring all of our lights to shine!”
Except our Hanukkiah is not full on this specific night. There’s one candle missing—and that’s wonderful, because it reminds us of so many other things we might forget otherwise. It reminds us that even when we bring our light, there is still darkness in this world, for our world is not yet redeemed. It reminds us that there is still more work that needs to be done, and so there is always more light we can bring. It reminds us that even in our happiest times, life is not all joyous—we all face moments of doubt and despair, and those are parts of the human condition, as well.
And yet for me, knowing that there is one “missing” light reminds me most of the words of Rabbi Tarfon—”Lo alecha ham’lcha ligmor, v’lo atah bein chorin l’hibatel mimenah,” which we usually translate it as “It is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Often we take that to mean, “The world is never going to be perfect – but we have to try.” I read it a little bit differently. The Hebrew says, “Lo alecha”—”it is not upon you,” and the word for “you”—alecha—in the singular. So I read that quote as, “It is not upon each of us by ourselves to complete the work—but we do have to do our part to the best our ability.”
So the message of Rosh Hodesh Tevet, the seventh night of Hanukkah, is that there is always something we can do to help bring more light into this dark world – and there is always something we must do.
The schools of Hillel and Shammai disagree (surprise!) about the way Chanukah candles are to be lit. Are we to light one candle the first night and then add one each day, or are we to begin with eight candles, and subtract one each day?
The Shammaite approach is understood by later interpreters (BT Shabbat 21b) this way: Chanukah is a reflection of Sukkot, and by starting with eight candles on the first night, and then subtracting one candle each night, we mirror way in which the bulls were sacrificed during the fall harvest festival. The approach also has the advantage of more accurately reminding us of the legend of that little cruse of oil whose light lingered far longer than expected.
And yet, the approach of the Hillelites was accepted. We began lighting our chanukiyot last Tuesday night with one light, and will conclude this evening with eight. The rationale: “in matters of holiness, we ascend rather than descending.” Our eight nights of celebration have seen the light grow brighter and brighter, and tonight all of the candles will be lit.
There’s an optimism inherent in the light that grows stronger each day, and on the last few nights of the holiday it is as if the very heavens rise to meet our efforts at adding light to the world. The darkest, longest nights of the year are the mostly moonless nights near the end of the month of Kislev, always near the Winter Solstice. These are the first days of Chanukah. As Chanukah ends, a new moon appears in the western sky at sunset, a little brighter and for a little bit longer on each of the last nights of the holiday. With solstice behind us (at least in those years when Chanukah “comes late”), the nights grow shorter; the waxing moon means they grow brighter, too.
Jews in the northeastern states (where the preponderance of US chanukiyot will be lit) may have to take it on faith this year. But those of us in the rest of the country stand a good chance to see the moon of Kislev in the western sky at lighting time. Let’s take a moment — perhaps just after the candles have guttered — to stand in the light of that waxing moon. As this year’s lighting comes to an end, let’s recommit ourselves to the ascent. May we bring light.