It is hard not to notice that the days are getting shorter and that the balance is shifting toward darkness in its tug of war with light each passing week. For some of us, this can be a challenging phenomenon – we much prefer the light to the darkness.
In fact, in the history of world literature and culture, light is often the symbol of positivity, goodness and holiness, while darkness represents negativity, evil and desecration. What is more, perhaps for some, the encroaching darkness mirrors our own inner feelings of the challenge of the pandemic, or personal crisis we are experiencing in our lives. These feelings have the potential to be overwhelming and leave us with a feeling of hopelessness.
Judaism, though, has a different view and can offer us a context of meaning and hope for both the actual darkness of the season and the metaphoric darkness of personal challenge. Beginning with none other than creation itself, the Torah indicates that darkness too is sacred. In fact, it is out of darkness that the world is born. “There was evening and there was morning – the first day” (Gen 1:5). The darkness of the evening precedes the light of the morning and both constitute the elemental foundations of creation. Light only has meaning due to the existence of darkness and both come from God.
As writer Barbara Mahany points out in poetic fashion, “Darkness is womb, is seed underground. Darkness is where birthing begins, incubator of unseen stirring, essential and fundamental growing.” In other words, from darkness can come growth, unseen blessing or unrealized potential. Darkness is the prelude to light. And without it, we can’t appreciate the light. As the Kabbalistic text Sefer Yetzirah says, “the existence of darkness underscores light, emphasizes the yearning for it.”
Our tradition honors this notion with the holiday of Hanukkah, which is called the festival of lights, because we kindle lights each night. However, powerfully, we celebrate it at the very darkest time of the year. The darkness forces us to appreciate the beauty of light and inspires us to find a deeper light within ourselves that we are charged with creating – the natural cycle of the world will not simply provide it like in the summer. As the late Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote, [During this season] Make the light be from you. Deep within you.”
Therefore, the challenge of this season is to seize the opportunity in the darkness of winter to reclaim the days and bring a deeper light of blessing, appreciation and compassion into the world and into our lives. We are guided to let the darkness inspire us to resilience, optimism and anticipation. Abraham Joshua Heschel talks about Shabbat as erecting a cathedral of time. As he wrote, “Learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” Through the Jewish tradition, darkness can indeed inspire us to erect a cathedral of light just when we need it most. As well as to set us up to enter the season of external light with our internal flame fully stoked. In this way, we honor the sacredness of darkness and its holy relationship to the light we all seek.