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.
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.
Last year, just before Chanukah, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman came to me for some assistance. Her four-year-old daughter had come home from school and asked her to explain the meaning of Chanukah. Although the reporter had grown up in New York City and had many Jewish friends, she didn’t feel equipped to adequately answer the question. She also realized that if she felt this way, there certainly must be others with a similar lack of “Chanukah knowledge.” That’s where I came in; the reporter asked me to write a piece that would help well-meaning, culturally curious parents answer their children’s questions. Here’s what I wrote:
My 6-year-old daughter, Noa, was particularly thrilled by Chanukah last year. She became more excited each night, as the number of candles we lit increased. The last night was enthralling, as she set each candle in the menorah that stood next to the window in our living room.
Chanukah (meaning dedication) comes at the darkest point of the year, waking us from our apathy and reminding us to be in awe of all of the small and large wonders in our lives. In the darkest of days, we have the amazing capacity to bring light — to bring goodness and peace — to those we encounter.
We light a menorah in our window for eight nights, adding one candle each night so that by the final night we have all eight candles and the helper candle, used to light the others (called the shamash), sparkling through the glass. By lighting the candles in the window, we don’t merely retain our light — rather, we shine it out onto the world.
But why the eight nights and eight candles? The story of Chanukah is one to which we can all relate.
It is the story of the small and righteous winning out over the large oppressive forces in the world. In 165 B.C.E., after discrimination, forced assimilation and violence, a small group of Jewish fighters, led by Judah Maccabee, won religious freedom from the large Hellenistic Assyrian army, led by the King Antiochus.
The rabbis responsible for writing the Talmud centuries later, who were living in a time when a military solution to oppression was not feasible, were uncomfortable simply celebrating a military victory, and therefore emphasized a more spiritual dimension with the legend of the oil. We are told that after the war, when the Maccabees went to rededicate our temple, there was only enough oil to light the menorah for one night. Yet, amazingly, this small cruse of oil lasted for eight days, enough time for our people to acquire more oil. Similar to Judah Maccabee’s tiny army, the small amount of oil would not dissipate.
Today, we eat special fried foods that symbolize the miracle of the oil — specifically potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly doughnuts. We also play a game called dreidel. Each side of this unique top is engraved with a letter symbolizing the line “A great miracle happened there.”
Traditionally, teachers were paid during Chanukah in gelt (coins), and therefore it also has become customary for children (and adults!) to enjoy chocolate Chanukah gelt.
Whatever story we choose to tell our children — whether it is one of victory over oppression or of miraculous oil — the essential message is the same. Sometimes life is rough. Sometimes people are mean, hurting us and getting us down. Yet, in the end, goodness will win out.
We all have a powerful inner light — represented by the candles of the menorah. It is our job — even in the darkest of days — to remain dedicated to allowing our light to shine bright, illuminating our world and bringing us to a better tomorrow.