Darkness and Light
Rabbi Abraham Kellner makes an insightful point when discussing Jewish history in general. Whenever we are lulled into thinking that everything is marvelous for us, the Jewish community is often beset by crisis; and whenever we have gotten to a point of despair, certain realities have emerged to give us rays of hope.
When Constantine and Byzantine society put limits on Jewish life and prosperity some 1500 years ago, Charlemagne’s Central Europe, in the early Middle Ages, opened doors of opportunity for Jewish communities in France and Germany. When Isabelle and Ferdinand exiled the Jewish communities of Spain in 1492, in the very same year, Columbus discovered a land that would one day welcome Jewish communities to populate and succeed in it. Crusades and pogroms ravaged the Rhine in the days of the Crusades 750 years ago– a time of great darkness–while Poland’s dukes allowed whole Jewish communities safe harbor into the principalities of Feudal Poland. Jewish communities suffered the restrictions and pogroms in the Pale of Settlement of Eastern Europe, while Central Europe–France and Germany–were enlightened societies that encouraged the enfranchisement and success of its Jewish communities, supporting their greater profile in commercial, civic, and political life. When the dark days of Holocaust enveloped much of Europe, the new Yishuv of Eretz Israel and the great Jewish community of the United States began to find its stride and its potency.
When the door seemed to be shut and darkness was all about, a crack in the doorframe appeared, leading to the light of day. Rabbi Kellner finds a basis for his theory in the scriptural verse that describes how God accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt. Two pillars went before them–Amud HeAnan ba Yom, ve Amud He Esh liela–a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. Indeed, whenever it’s bright out and the sun is shining, it seems that clouds amass and dim the light, but in the midst of darkness, when all seems lost, sparks of light, followed by light, and then a torch of light overtakes the darkness. This seems the historical journey of our people.
At Chanukah we might dwell on this. At Chanukah, we remember of time of darkness of the cruel hand of Antiochus, who sought to extinguish not the Jewish people per se, but the Jewish religion. He sought to suffocate the light of Torah–the uniqueness that the Jewish people brought to the world. He was fine with Jews living. He even had the “light of Hellenism” to offer in its place. But some Jews were insightful enough to realize that a Jewish Peoplehood had a limited shelf life without its faith and its laws, customs and values. At Chanukah we must take stock. When the door is closed on Jewish practice, Jewish ritual, Jewish law and custom, it is not just dark. Eventually the oxygen leaves the room. Without Judaism, a Jew flounders and then founders. Without Torah and Mitzvah, without synagogue and academy, without a sense of Jewish uniqueness and distinctive destiny, there is soon no meaning in Jewish existence. Jewish existence to what end? And that was precisely Antiochus’s plan. May we never be duped into such offers of “daylight.” Such offers are at best a night light, that only help put our people to sleep.
In recent times, darkness has once again descended, with anti-Semitism becoming more common, expressed on both the right and the left. Israel is being demonized, and in some places Jewish students are being shunned and harassed for their courageous support and pro-Israel views. The work ahead of us is daunting, to stem a tide of intolerance, both in academia and in the political realm, for the nation state of the Jewish People. There are far too many who want to undo the right of the Jewish people to live as a sovereign nation on their historic homeland. Such an outcome would plunge our people back into the darkness of exile and dependence. This Chanukah, as we light our hanukiah, let's kindle 9 lights...the light of mitzvah; the light of tenacity and faith; the light of pride and self-respect; the light of prayer and learning. May we kindle the light of involvement in our small but vibrant Kehila; the light of generosity, funding organizations that take a stand against intolerance and anti-Semitism. As Chanukah approaches, let's kindle the light of connection to the State of Israel; the light of Jewish self preservation; and the light of family observance and synagogue activism. At Chanukah we sing, banu choshesh legaresh… " We have come to chase away the darkness." With each of us kindling these small lights, we shall drive away the darkness and our little flames become a great torch. We cannot always foresee the clouds, nor anticipate where little rays of light will emerge. But together, with God’s help, I believe that we can drive away, at least in large part, the darkness and new light shall illumine, transforming darkness into day.
The Passover Hagadda asserts,“Karev Yom asher… tair ohr yom heshkat Laila,” a day will come in which all darkness shall be transformed to light. May this Passover wish begin with our energy and resolve at Chanukah as we kindle our little candles. With each of our energies and our commitments, daylight is on the way!
Chag muar ve sameach… Happy and healthy and luminous Chanukah, from Rabbi, Beth, Marc and Alan