Realizing the power of light in a time of darkness


The days are getting colder, the nights are getting longer. We are approaching the winter solstice. We have begun to forget the feeling of the sun on our skin. Some of us can hardly believe the long hot days of summer will ever return. A midrash links these shortening days with the Festival of Lights. It imagines Adam, the first human, experiencing his first solstice: “When Adam saw the days beginning to get shorter, he said, ‘“Woe is me! Perhaps the world…is returning to chaos and confusion…’” (Avodah Zarah 8a). Adam cries out in fear. He has never seen a darkness like this one. It threatens to throw the world back into the primordial chaos from which it emerged.

Our society, too, faces a great darkness that threatens to unmake the world as we know it. With the rise in right-wing populism, global anti-Semitism has increased. This last year the ADL recorded a 57 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. alone. We are overwhelmed by the chaos that swirls around us. We, too, cry out in fear. The Holocaust survivors I work with could not have imagined anti-Semitic violence taking place on American soil, much less the Tree of Life synagogue massacre. As the spiritual darkness of hatred and xenophobia that fueled this event becomes manifest, we, like the first human, feel our world coming undone.

As the darkness deepens, the midrash says, the first human cries out in fear. But seeing that the stars are still hanging in the heavens above him, the earth still solidly anchored beneath his feet, he eventually realizes he is safe – at least for the moment.

Something shifts in him. Adam no longer relates to his discomfort from a place of reactivity. The midrash tells us, “He arose and spent eight days in fasting and in prayer.” Perhaps some part of him knows he will not be able to overcome a force he cannot understand. So he steadies himself on the earth and rises. Hands open in prayer and supplication, he is willing to learn from the dark.

The Jewish day starts with night, based on the verse in Genesis that reads, “There was evening, and there was morning.” Before light can emerge from it, darkness must first be created. This is true of our societal darkness. We can all think of examples of the altruism, resourcefulness and generosity that arise from the very midst of disaster’s grief and disruption. When I went to synagogue a week after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, the rabbi told us he had seen a group of Muslims walking to area synagogues to keep an eye out for trouble. Many of my rabbinic colleagues shared similar stories of neighboring faith communities offering care and support.

The story of Adam’s first solstice concludes, “Once he saw that the season of Tevet (i.e., the winter solstice) had arrived, and saw that the day was progressively lengthening after the solstice, he said: Clearly, the days become shorter and then longer, and this is the order of the world.”

Only after Adam learns from the darkness – understands the forces that created it, and the forces that will bring it to an end – does he institute a holiday. In this midrash, the rabbis imagine the origin of Hanukkah comes – not from the zealous Maccabeans – but from humanity’s faith that light will always emerge from the deepest darkness.

That is why we light the menorah at this darkest time of year. For eight days, we proclaim the power of light to overcome even the greatest darkness. For eight days, we remind ourselves that the pendulum of history will swing back again, and this societal darkness will come to an end.

Against the chaos and confusion that threaten to unmake our world, we kindle one flame. Then another. We gather our families and our friends to remake the world, light by light. We grow this light in our living rooms, until it surrounds those we know. And we expand the circle of light  until it pours out into the streets, enveloping the strangers who dwell in our midst. We don’t stop until it fills our world, and lengthens all of our days.

RABBI ADAM LAVITT serves as a spiritual director in Boston and Providence, and works as rabbi and chaplain at Hebrew SeniorLife. He graduated from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2012, and served as assistant rabbi at Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, and campus rabbi at Swarthmore College. He is an alumnus of the CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship, the JOIN for Justice Clergy Fellowship, and the Boston Bridges Fellowship. He lives in Providence with his husband, Alex.