Every year at my boy’s elementary school, there’s a Chanukah concert that includes rap songs and other talent. A few years ago, it included the popular song, “Ba’nu choshekh l’garesh.” I’m not so connected to modern Israeli culture, so it was my first time hearing it, but most Israel Jews know it. Here’s a translation:
We come, the darkness to expel —
In our hands, light and fire.
Each one is a small light,
And all of us together — an immense light!
Flee darkness! Begone black!
Flee before the light!
The school, in western Massachussetts, teaches great midot — moral qualities — and it’s also multiracial. (I shouldn’t need to say that because Jews are all races, but our prejudices can make us forgetful about who we are.) So the words “Begone black/Hal’ah sh’chor” really struck me as the wrong message to be singing, even though I know that no one who loves the song today or in the past — certainly not the Yemenite composer, Sara Levi-Tannai — would have intended any such thing. “Ba’nu choshekh” probably represented pretty well what a lot of people imagine when they think about Chanukah — we are celebrating the triumph of light over darkness.
If you think about it more, though, that’s still a problem. For one thing, we use darkness to mean ignorance. Let’s talk tachlis: it’s usually one’s own perspective that one sees as the perspective of light. Politically, that’s always been a framework one people uses to justify colonizing and erasing another people’s culture, as the Europeans did when they brought the light of Christian civilization to the “dark” continent of Africa, or to the Native Americans, living in ignorance of the son of God. The Hellenists of the Chanukah story also thought of themselves as bringing light to benighted peoples like the Jews, who were held in thrall to their failed god(s).
But there’s also a deeper problem than the questions of politics and morality. Darkness is what gives us the glory of the night sky. Without it, the Milky Way, the shining path that inspired our ancestors to look up and wonder “who created these?” (Is. 40:26), is all but obliterated by the light spilling from our cities and suburbs. Moreover, as my friend Rabbi Fern Feldman teaches, the darkness is what Moses needed to enter in order to receive revelation. (Ex. 20:17) (On the glory of the night sky and Chanukah, read this.)
Western civilization has all but worshipped light as a symbol of God. In the process we have lost touch with the immanence of God, with what we call Shekhinah. To speak in theological poetry, the darkness of the Shekhinah is the womb-space that gives birth to the world. The Zohar calls Shekhinah the “beautiful maiden that has no eyes” — meaning, having no light of her own, nurturing us by feeding us darkness, mystery, yearning.
This is the darkness in which the seed begins to grow and the baby starts to form, in which mycorrhizal fungi weave together with plant and tree root to nurture each other. Darkness is the Earth, that brings growth and sustenance to all. If we ever needed to honor darkness, it’s now, when we need to fight for the Earth.
So what should we be teaching about the “festival of lights”? If darkness nurtures the light, then Chanukah is a time when we are planting seeds of light. That is what the tiny flames of the Chanukah candles really look like, after all.
And that is the actual experience of sitting and watching the candles. No one sits in front of the menorah thinking, “I can’t wait for these candles to grow so bright that there’s no more darkness.” Darkness is the condition that makes the candles beautiful and sweet. We can understand the meaning of Chanukah starting from that experience, rather than from some unintentionally dualistic, Hellenistic ideology that looks to expel darkness. Chanukah should be a celebration and savoring of the darkness, as well as an appreciation of the turning of the light.
One of the Facebook groups I belong to is for Jewish educators. Someone there asked, at what age should we tell our students that the oil burning for eight days was a myth made up by the rabbis, that there was no “miracle of light”? He also asked, when should we tell them that the Maccabees corruptly and illegally took over the high priesthood and the kingship, and in the end were the ones who gave the Romans a foothold in Israel/Palestine?
Here’s how I responded: Before you tell them any of that, first tell them how Chanukah relates to the seasons of the Earth. Tell them that most cultures have light-based rituals in the time of greatest darkness, that Chanukah always includes the new moon that is closest to the solstice, which is in fact the darkest night of the year, and that the Shabbat before Chanukah the Torah always ends with Joseph abandoned in prison. Tell them that we make a bridge of light with our menorahs across that darkest night.
After that, when you tell them about the oil, tell them about the noble effort our rabbis made to shift our attention from military conquest to spiritual valor — that’s why we read “not by might and not by power, but by My spirit” in synagogue on Chanukah — and about how the spiritual meaning of things is always bigger than the historical meaning of things.
And then when they are old enough to understand, tell them that we are still struggling as a people over whether Chanukah is about spiritual or military valor. Teach them how Chanukah gets used for different purposes, like supporting the idea of military strength in the state of Israel, or promoting the idea of religious freedom in the U.S. Only if you are willing to teach these things, at the right developmental time, should you also make it your mission to dis-illusion students about the story of Chanukah.
In any case, the deeper story of Chanukah is not found in any one of these interpretations. The oil that burned for eight days is not a history lesson, but a beacon for our dreams. The story of the oil teaches us something about what it means to be human, to make our memory count for something that brings tikkun, that fixes the world.
We still need the story of the oil — maybe now more than ever, with the climate talks proceeding in Paris, when we need to think about using energy in the purest way possible. If there’s an illusion that needs to go, it’s the idea that we are the fiery light fighting the darkness. The story we need now is about winter darkness nurturing the light.
We could start by describing the darkness just as the female lover describes herself in the Song of Songs 1:5, “Sh’chorah v’na’vah” — “black, and lovely!” (So often this is mistranslated, “I am dark, but comely.”) Let’s savor, honor, sanctify the darkness, find strength within it, within her. Let that be what we teach our rainbow children.