Chasing away the darkness

This summer, we moved north. Well, northeast to be exact. We still live in New England, though we are now Boston and not New York centered. I thought that this (nearly) life long New Yorker had considered all the changes that we would need to anticipate. What took us all by surprise is that in these darkest weeks of the year, shabbat begins before 4PM.

Somehow, though the difference is only ten or twelve minutes, crossing that magic 4 o’clock line has made it seem obscenely early. As if having traversed into hours that begin with a 3, the darkness might just feel empowered to keep on going, and we would soon find ourselves lighting candles at lunchtime.

This must have been how the ancients felt. Sure, at this time of year, that the light would soon return. Sure, but not certain. It’s how I feel, just a little bit, as this small detail has unexpectedly changed my perspective.

It’s been a terribly sad couple of weeks, dark in all senses of the word, punctuated by the tragic loss of a boy whose family mourns just a few blocks away from where I sit, their lives changed forever.

As we enter into Hannukah, I want to say how amazed I am. It has been truly beautiful how this community has come together and supported one another and been, as we should always be, kind to each other. But also, how sad I am that this very support is so notable, so surprising.

I’m also disheartened by the way the discourse within the Jewish community has devolved. People who have a differing opinions are demonized, called clueless, or fascist, or self hating. Or nazis. In order to call someone names like those, one must be completely certain of one’s own rectitude. 100% sure that your way is Hashem’s way.

Only, no one is ever sure. We make our best, most-well intentioned guesses about what’s right based on our understanding of history, of Torah, of humanity. And we hope that we have guessed correctly. That fact should give every single one of us a bit of humility. That we think our path may be the right one, but we understand that other Jews, who love Torah, who love their children, who love Israel, may come to different conclusions.

When our community is at its best, we recognize that life is filled with ambiguity. That faithful Jews can look at the very same facts that I have presented before me, and come to an opposite conclusion. When we are at our worst, we use our pens as swords, or our swords as swords, in an effort to ‘convince’ others that ours is the one true path.

Traditionally we are told that difficult disputes will be resolved when the Messiah comes and reveals to us explicitly who was wrong and who was right. In the meantime, we’ll just have to learn to live with people who disagree with us, no matter how exasperating it may be.

On Hannukah, we announce who we are to the world, with lights of every kind. From huge public hannukiyot that require cranes to ignite, to tiny brass candleholders passed down from great-grandparents. From flashy and purposefully ostentatious silver pieces, to lopsided kindergarten art projects, concrete reminders of the wobbly toddlers who for just a moment were still with wonder at the glow of the flames. Is one of those lights better than another? More Jewish? More righteous? Closer to God?

This year, a little part of me mistrusts the scientific evidence on which we all rely. My head knows, absolutely, that the days will again get longer, the sun will soon illuminate those inky corners. In my heart, though, the darkness oppresses. It lingers just a bit longer than science says it should. It reminds me that even when I live in near complete certitude, no one person has all the answers.

This Hannukah, as we take our jumble of hannukiyot out of our closets, and clean off last year’s melted wax, I’ll continue to be hopeful. This Hannukah, let in the light that comes from hearing a fresh perspective. I wish everyone in our communities, near and far, just a little bit of doubt.

About the Author
Leah Bieler has an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics. She teaches Talmud to students of all ages and backgrounds. Leah spends the school year in Massachusetts and summers in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. Sometimes she writes to get a break from them. The children, that is.