Why the Darkness of Chanukah Matters

Weeks ago at the head of the Jewish year, we read Parashat Bereshit “In the beginning,” which opens creation in a vast field of darkness. It’s there, out of the darkest indistinguishable nothingness that G-d begins the work of creating the worlds we inhabit.

When we think of creation, all that enters our mind, everything we can conceptualize is something which is formed after this initial beginning state. What even is “nothingness”? Is “darkness” even appropriate as a descriptor when G-d has not yet separated light from dark?

In a similar way, we remember Chanukah for the miracle of its lights. In general, Chanukah is a festive holiday, a celebration that G-d has come through and allowed the Temple to be purified again. Ironically too, it’s become such a secular Jewish holiday when its traditional story is about rebelling against assimilation.

Darkness plays little to no role in our contemporary observance of Chanukah which begins with kindling the lights of the menorah. But how then do we truly remember the miracle?  If there is no separation of light from darkness, if there is no darkness, what meaning does the light hold?

Sparking the Light From Darkness

The Kabbalists teach that the partnership of light and darkness is vital to Chanukah. Without one, the other is not apparent. We find this wisdom within the word itself. Taking the first two letters of Chanukah (chet and nun), we receive the Hebrew word “Chen,” which is sometimes given the meaning favor or other times better understood as an expression of grace.

Chen appears first in the Torah describing the state of Noah, whose name ironically enough contains the same letters only reversed. Noah, immersed in his existential darkness, finds favor in the eyes of G-d (Genesis 6:8). In that verse, the Torah reveals the synthesis at the root of G-d’s renewing creation in the world. Darkness mirrors light, balance mirrors chaos, void mirrors plenty. Chashocha, darkness, is transformed into light, nehora, another chen.

Chanukah, on its surface is a story about a miracle of oil lasting eight nights. And on a deeper level, it is about the dark emptiness from which G-d begins the work of creation. Without the darkness, without the existential threat of never-ending darkness, total annihilation, and the very real risk that G-d does not intervene, that all is lost, and we are left to be wiped out and our temples defiled–there is no miracle, there would only be light. Nothing miraculous would have happened here, there, or anywhere.

By Center for Jewish History, NYC – https://www.flickr.com/photos/center_for_jewish_history/4854032784/, no restrictions

Remembering the Darkness of Our Own Lives

For me, Judaism comes from this sort of darkness. (So much so that Pinchas has been suggested as an adoptive Hebrew nickname a few times). My connection to my Jewish heritage is something I have needed to kindle back into light, nearly extinguished by intermarriage and the assimilating force of the Reform movement in the generations prior to me. It’s something where the light is still increasing, and G-d is still at work.

Chanukah, this relatively minor holiday for most Jews, is to me, the ritualized memory of my Jewish journey so far. Chanukah answers the prayers of my ancestors–not just of the Macabees, but of the mothers of Białystok and Gdańsk too. Tradition is remembered. Our covenant is remembered.

I think too of the last year, which is perhaps a point through which more others can relate to what I am talking about here. From March 2020 until the summer of 2021, my life drastically changed. I was mandated out of work during the pandemic shutdowns, and quickly lost all of my savings in a fruitless hope that two more weeks  would be enough. It truly wasn’t until Chanukah during the pandemic that I understood the importance of that suffering, and the creative vitality of darkness to the miracle it commemorates.

Darkness shows up in all of our lives. I know this as a coach who often works with people in the darkest periods of their life. And I know this as a student of Torah who each week remembers the story of another ancestral figure facing down their sense of unworthiness, the darkness of temptation, the free-fall of total failure, or the threat of everything ending all around them.

G-d is preparing to work in our lives at these times. The Kabbalists teach us that the initial act of creation is not a forward movement but a withdraw, tzimtzum, or, contraction. It is G-d’s absence and movement from  which creates the space that can be filled with the world He creates.

The miracle of Chanukah then is not just that the oil lasted long ago. It is also that our Creator is an alchemist of darkness, that the periods of our lives even today clouded by night and nothingness are the gardens in which He is playing, still. Lila, a Sanskrit term for the divine play of G-d, feels appropriate here.

Chanukah is not a miracle of light chasing away the dark, but the miracle of the spark of light revealed in the dark. Our celebration is not for the gifts and blessings of G-d, but for the acts of purifying transformation witnessed by our ancestors, everywhere, and for those acts we anticipate and excite coming still.

Last year I started a tradition I want to carry with me into future observances of Chanukah. For me, this holiday demands a moment to feel and remember the dark–not to eulogize or fast–but to juxtapose (like Noach to the favor he found in G-d’s eyes) beside the lights we kindle.

Maybe this will be a useful practice for you too. Before lighting your candles, take a moment to feel the fertile breadth of all that is dark. Allow yourself to feel a victorious excitement entering into it. That spirit, that energy, by my reckoning at least, is the miracle of Chanukah we are called to publicize.

Chag Chanukah Sameach, readers!! Thank you for being here.

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