The Interplay of Light and Dark
by Rabbi David Zaslow
What’s the darkest night of the year? You might guess the winter solstice on December 21st! But that’s the shortest night of the year, not necessarily the darkest. Each year, on the sixth night of Hanukkah, we mark the new moon of Tevet. Hanukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev, near the end of the lunar month. The sixth night of Hanukkah is the evening of 1st of Tevet.
During the days surrounding Hanukkah we contemplate the interplay between light and darkness. The autumn has passed, and we are in the middle of the winter. In an exquisite paradox our rabbis teach us that although it is light that permits us to see, it is in the darkness that we can see the farthest. During daylight we only see what is near, but as soon as night comes we can see the stars, which are light-years away from us. This paradox has a very profound application during Hanukkah, since it is through our past mistakes (the darkness within our past) that we have learned to see the greatest distances.
We don’t need candles in the daylight and we don’t need Hanukkah in July. Our tradition teaches us that the darkest time of the year is not the season to make confessions and resolutions for a new year. That work is done during the season of the autumn equinox (September 21st, which falls near Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur). The shortest and darkest days of the year, around the winter solstice, are given to us by the Creator so that we can go deeply inside ourselves and be thankful for all the transformations that have already occurred.
During Hanukkah we celebrate how our past negative traits (the darkness) are being transformed (the candle) into something that will turn out for the good (the full light of the upcoming spring). The month of Kislev is a time to integrate the shadow that is within each of us. What happens when we light a candle in the darkness during Hanukkah? We make shadows! We have enough light to see what is near us, and we preserve enough of the darkness so that we can see the lights in the far distance.
For Hanukkah to have real meaning it has to be more than eating latkes, giving gifts, or even telling the marvelous stories of the miracle of the oil and the world’s first battle for religious freedom. For Hanukkah to have meaning it must be personal. The word for “the oil” in Hebrew is הַשֶׁמֶן ha-shemen. It contains the same letters as the word for soul, which is נְשָׁמָה neshamah. Oil has something to do with soul. The word for “wick” in Hebrew is פְּתִילָה petillah, which contains the same Hebrew letters as the word for “prayer,” which is תְּפִלָּה t’fillah. Prayer is a conduit for the soul the same way a wick is a conduit for the oil. Prayer is not an end in itself, any more than the wick is the goal of the candle.
Prayer is the means to an end, and the end is a connection to the Divine. In the same way, the wick transports the oil to the flame and permits the flame to be continuous and steady. Only when we light the wick does it draw up the oil in a continuous flame. Only when we ignite our prayers with passion does the light burn continuously, seemingly on its own. And as anyone who loves to pray knows, a good davven lasts for eight days. That’s the real miracle of Hanukkah, available to everyone of us.