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From chaos to light

Usually, we light Hanukkah candles as long as people are out and about, but this year, with people isolated at home, we needed a new way to share our light with others
Lighting Hanukkah candles in Nachlaot, Jerusalem. (Keren Freeman/Flash 90)
Lighting Hanukkah candles in Nachlaot, Jerusalem. (Keren Freeman/Flash 90)

Every year, we light the hanukkiah (the Hanukkah menorah) in order that others will see our light. We do this to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah. As the Talmud in Shabbat 21b, teaches, we can light the hanukkiah “ad she-tikhleh regel min ha-shuk” — until the time that people have stopped returning home from the marketplace. In other words, we can light so long as others will be outside and see our hanukkiahs.

But what happens in 2020 when so many of our “shuk”s, our marketplaces, are empty? What happens in a year of isolation and quarantines when we are not venturing outside to see each other’s lights? Is there a way this Hanukkah that we can still intentionally share our light with others?

Though we may not be able to share our physical light this year, there is a way, in the spirit of Hanukkah, that we can shine a different kind of light, a light that is needed in a world so full of turmoil and darkness. To illuminate the intricacies of this light and its power of healing, let us return to the beginning of creation.

The story of creation starts with God transforming the world from an initial state of chaos and darkness into light. Over the six days of creation, God uses the phrase “vayar ki tov” — God saw that it was good — many times. This phrase is strikingly missing, however, from the second day of creation, when God separated the water and the heavens, and from the sixth day of creation, when God created humanity. There must, therefore, be something about the water, heavens, and humanity that God thought was not fully good.

Rabbi Chanoch Waxman, in his article, “And God Saw That It Was Good,” posits that God does not call the second day’s creations good because the second day’s separation of water and heavens was only completed on the subsequent third day, when the waters retreated and revealed land. In other words, God reserves the pronouncement of tov, good, for creations that are complete. This, however, raises a deeper question: was there something about the creation of humanity that was incomplete? What does that say about humankind and our role in the world?

Waxman posits that just as God turned a world of chaos and darkness into order and light, people must use their God-given tzelem Elokim, likenesses to God, to transform their inner human elements of chaos and darkness into order and light. In this way, the creation of humanity was incomplete — we complete the creation by turning the chaotic and dark parts of ourselves into light.

The story of humankind and our ontological quest to complete our own creation does not end there, however. The word “tov,” the designation God gives to complete creations, first appears in regard to humankind in Genesis 2:18, when God states that it is “lo tov,” not good, for man to be alone. Man then, can only earn the designation of tov, complete, when he is with others. Perhaps this is because there are times in our lives when our inner darkness is too intense for us to turn into light on our own. Perhaps here the text is teaching us that we fulfill a purpose of human creation when we reach out to others in their times of darkness and help them find their light.

This Hanukkah, as we continue to live through a time of intense turmoil, we may not be able to share our physical candlelight, but we can kindle spiritual and emotional light for those who are suffering through darkness. Even if we can only bring them a tiny bit of light, the ancient miracle of Hanukkah demonstrates that sometimes just a little light can last for longer than we could ever imagine.

May we find strength this Hanukkah in our powers of illumination. May we find comfort in the goodness of others. And through supporting one another, may we collectively harness our tzelem Elokim to bring forth a world that is just a little brighter, a little more filled with light.

About the Author
Jennifer Raskas is the Washington, DC, manager for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She speaks, writes and teaches classes widely on Hebrew literary approaches to readings in Tanakh. She is also a trained facilitator through Resetting the Table, which brings communities together for brave conversations across difference. Jennifer received her Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University and her Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
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