We citizens of the American Northeast celebrate and grieve at once, the glory days of elegiac light, the imminent end of bare legs—and then, in quickening sequence, sweaters, jackets, gloves and hats, deployed so reluctantly over bleak months.
From whence cometh our consolation? From the Jewish calendar, with its brilliant paradoxes.
In the midst of summer, the enchantment of languorous afternoons and spellbound evenings, we enter the Three Weeks, a period of mourning that precedes the fast of Tisha B’Av.
In the “season of our joy,” the holiday of Sukkot, we read the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, which begins, “All is vanity.”
Both are bracing reminders that the moment’s evanescent beauty cannot linger. In Western time, dawn begins our waking day, but the Jewish day is born at lyrical twilight, unfurling through the deepening night until light’s end.
Remember, says our calendar, and do not live in illusion.
Thankfully, an ancient tradition must also provide solace, and now the paradox of Jewish time favors us.
As we approach the winter solstice, the shortest day, when light is quenched early, always before we are ready, we are given a holiday during which it is our task—precisely as darkness falls—to augment the light.
In a well-known rabbinic debate, the House of Shammai contends with the House of Hillel as to whether the eight lights of Hanukka should be kindled in descending or ascending order.
I have always taken Hillel’s victory in this argument as the consummate Jewish approach to our lives. We begin with one candle and, with each night, light a second, third and fourth until, at eight, the menora blazes with the triumph of our ancestors and of ours.
Jews are committed to the vanquishing of darkness, even in the blackest season. Our task is to add light—to retrieve the sparks of the shattered vessels, as the mystics have it—one more candle, our pledge to redeem a desecrated world.
Every morning the liturgy describes God as “renewing each day the work of Creation, enduringly, eternally.” Each night of Hanukka, we utter the world into light, as God created the world with the imperative, “Let there be light.”
The biblical text notes that God then “separated the light from the darkness.” The quest for light is an intention, not an accident, a deliberate act to take us from the tohu va-vohu chaos of primal murk into a world of distinctions, where we know the difference between radiance and desolation, where we are charged to increase and intensify the fragile first light into a harvest of overflowing, a surfeit of light, one night longer than a week—because who does not need an extra measure?
After the blessings, some sit before the menora to watch the starry candles as they burn, doubled in the mirroring window. I try to adopt the custom when I can—to contemplate the light, to take a breath in my always frantic evenings of interrupted tasks.
For although the dreariness of January seems imminent, Hanukka reminds me that the refracted light in my dining room pane augurs the birthday of the trees and the amplified joy of Adar, leading to the season of freedom for this lover of light: Pesah, Hag Ha-aviv, the festival of spring.
May darkness be curtailed and rising splendor illuminate our days. H
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