Punching holes in the darkness

Robert Lewis Stevenson grew up in Scotland in the mid-nineteenth century.  One night when he was still a  young boy he was captivated by what he saw from his home’s front window.  He fixated on a lamplighter who was coming up the street with his ladder and burning wick. One by one, the man lit the old-fashioned gas street lamps.  The boy’s parents noticed their son’s fascination. “What are you looking at out there?”  Young Robert answered, “See that man out there!  He’s punching holes in the darkness!”

With the arrival of Hanukkah this Sunday night, we have a storied history of what it can mean to punch holes in the darkness. How do we achieve this? What is particular about the Jewish way of dispelling darkness?

Every religion brings its unique approach to this task.  Some urge devotional submission.  Others encourage acceptance with the help of heavenly companionship.  God’s Torah commends protest.  Not merely protest against something, but for the sake of something else.  Not simple rejection.  Rather, defiant affirmation. 

This week’s portion offers two illustrations.  They are made vivid by the Torah’s word for ‘refusal’ va’yima-ein.  First, Jacob refuses to accept the demise of his beloved son Joseph. “When the rest of his family finished their mourning, Jacob refused to rise from the mourner’s bench” (Gen. 35:37).  This not only differentiates his grief from the grief felt by the rest of his family, it personifies a defiance that clings to hope as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks elegantly conveys in his commentary this week.  A second instance of defiance involves Joseph’s refusal to succumb to the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife.  “And Joseph refused her aggressive advances” (Gen. 39:8). 

This word for refusal, miun, will recur many times in the Torah.  Yet, for example, when Pharaoh refuses to liberate our ancestors, it is not for the sake of a noble purpose.  Refusal need not reveal stubbornness.  When it stands for principles it can become nimble, adroitly advancing higher promise.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel captured the Jewish way of punching holes in the darkness when he stressed the importance of ‘saying no in the name of a higher yes’. 

As we seek to dispel darkness in today’s world, may we draw transforming strength from the closing words of the Psalm for Hanukkah.  “You have transformed my mourning into dancing, my sackcloth has been set aside to greet joyous moments. So that I may make audible songs that honor You, my God; to You I will forever strive to remain thankful” (Ps. 30:12-13).

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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