Jewish Journal

Embrace the Dark, Then Light a Candle

by Rabbi Anne Brener

Posted on Dec. 8, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Kislev, the month when we begin to light the candles of Chanukah, is the month that contains the year’s longest nights and shortest days. In Kislev we begin in darkness, like all of creation. With less brightness from above, we contemplate the essence that preceded God’s command: “Let there be light.” We have a personal experience of that time of Infinite Potential, when the Divine Mystery and darkness were all that was, as we relive those moments when the lights of creation had not yet been called into being.

Humans today don’t spend very much time in the dark. Because our days are easily lit by electric lights, we have lost our organic connection to the flow of sunshine and shadow that naturally shape time. Perhaps more familiarity with the night could help us become more attuned to and accepting of life’s natural ebb and flow. Instead, we are blinded by light. We see all that is not bathed in brightness as aberration or failure. This stigmatizes those who suffer. Cast out of the light, they wonder if they are responsible for their own pain. They feel isolated and unable to reach out to the community from their dark time. This makes it possible for far too many of us to live a life of denial, avoiding the more subtle wisdom of that which might be hidden or shaded.

Our cultural pursuit of light can obscure the fertility of mysterious, hidden spaces and ultimately rob us of our own potency. This is especially true in the month of Kislev when there is a dissonance between our instincts and our imperatives. The organic world calls us to slow down and go inside — both physically and spiritually — to spend more time inside our homes, focused on our inner light. But the social world is calling for more, more, more — more parties, more shopping, more food, more activity, with tiny electric lights tied to every house and every tree. We push ourselves to keep up with a social schedule that belies our deepest nature.

We are always looking for something brighter. When people pray for healing, they often pray for the light. Spiritual seekers aim for “enlightenment.” But what is often needed is what theologian Matthew Fox calls “endarkening.” Just like the biblical story of the beginnings of the world, growth, change and creativity are rooted in the mystery of darkness. Stem cells become organs in the dark cells of our bodies. Seeds germinate deep in the ground. Healing begins in dark mystery seemingly impenetrable to beams of brightness. Even research, which needs a brilliant spark of inspiration, begins with a question that is posed to a possibility that is hidden in darkness. Lingering in that darkness, we meet the fears that our early human ancestors must have faced before they had conquered the enigmas of warmth and light — before they truly understood that the sun would rise each morning.

While it might seem counter to the culture in which we live, it is possible to discover in Kislev’s extended nighttime an innate comfort, as we tune into the sensations of our bodies and the rising and falling of our breath. Meditating in the darkness, we contemplate a world in which human experience was more closely bound to the tides of day and night — a time with no artificial light or traffic noise distracting us from the murmurs of creation. To listen to that wholeness is to hear the Shema uttered by the universe itself. It is to feel the mixture of fear and wonder that is held in the Hebrew word, yirah, which is so often translated as awe. From this place, we strike a match and light the first candle of Chanukah.

Chanukah, which begins on one of the last nights of Kislev, comes in this dark time. Its message is one of human potential. Life in the shadows, where we struggle with our fears and doubts and pay attention to our dreams and yearnings, ultimately blesses us with knowledge of our unique strengths. We learn that, like the Maccabees, we must take matters into our own hands. We learn that when the lights above are less accessible, we must light candles below. The act of touching the flame of a match to the wick of a candle provides us with an opportunity to explore the miracle of human empowerment.

Mystics speak of “theurgy,” the possibility that our actions might have an influence on Holiness. There is even a radical theology that says that God is present only where we, humans, let God in. Our tradition tells us that our souls are God’s lamp and that mutual need is what calls both sides of the human-God equation into being. If this is true, we must not underestimate the importance of lighting that first light of Chanukah.

Coming out of darkness to light that first candle is a profound act of faith. From our place below, wrapped in nocturnal sensitivity, we mimic the first act of creation. We take responsibility for the work begun at the beginning of time, when God said, “Let there be light.” With our own hands we strike the match to light the candles of Kislev to illuminate our journey as we focus human potential to summon the light of Holiness as we walk in God’s ways. A

Rabbi Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist and spiritual counselor who helps communities design caring committees. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001) and a faculty member with the Academy for Jewish Religion, California and the Morei Derekh program for Yedidya —  Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction. She is on the advisory board of the Kalsman Institute of Judaism and Medicine at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Brener can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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