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let there be light

12/01/2022 08:52:45 AM

Dec1

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers

With the lessening of daylight hours every day in the Northern Hemisphere, it seemed perfectly reasonable to establish festivals during the darkest days of winter that celebrated light. Darkness led to fear and stranger things that went bump in the night. Unexplained phenomena occurred more frequently in the absence of light. Festivals that focus on light seemed a perfect antidote. While it is coincidental that Chanukah begins on the 25th of Kislev, nevertheless the concentration on light to dispel darkness is a theme throughout the world as witnessed by all of the winter light festivals.

Our evening prayers, established more than a millennium ago, even offer a bracha that expresses the hopes for Divine Protection. We know it by its opening word: Hashkivenu. We read the following: Shield us from enemies and pestilence, from starvation, sword and sorrow. Remove the evil forces that surround us. Shelter us in the shadow of Your wings, O God, who watches over us and delivers us, gracious and merciful Ruler. Guard our coming and our going. [Siddur Sim Shalom L’chol, p. 140] I can recall regularly reading this text responsively in my childhood synagogue, but never understood why the word “pestilence” was included. How incredible that I now understand it, but yet how tragic.

There is no parallel prayer in the morning or afternoon services, which thus reflects the uncertainty and fear of darkness. Walking home from evening minyan was potentially dangerous, although, sadly, that seems to be the case now. Beseeching God for protection would have been the expected words from a regular worshipper, who would offer a different set of requests in the daylight hours. Lighting Shabbat candles at 4:35PM is far different from lighting them at 8:35PM in July. To me there has always been something special about the warm glow of the candles during the darkest months, not merely due to the joy of Shabbat, but that the presence of Shabbat in my home gives me a taste of God’s presence through their glow. How much more so on Shabbat Chanukah, when the candles of the chanukiyah combined with the Shabbat candles is just beautiful. When our children were younger, each had their own chanukiyah to kindle, so there would be three aglow. I would just stand there and take in the warmth and the beauty.

The cure for the darkness is rather uncomplicated. Light Shabbat candles. Attend Friday evening services. Have a Shabbat meal replete with wine, challah, and of course chicken soup with matza balls. Judaism has the answer to the darkness, and the invitation awaits you.

Wed, February 1 2023 10 Shevat 5783