Rabbi David Seidenberg
To speak in theological poetry, the darkness of the Shekhinah is the womb-space that gives birth to the world. The Zohar calls Shekhinah the “beautiful maiden that has no eyes” — meaning, having no light of her own, nurturing us by feeding us darkness, mystery, yearning.
This is the darkness in which the seed begins to grow and the baby starts to form, in which mycorrhizal fungi weave together with plant and tree root to nurture each other. Darkness is the Earth, that brings growth and sustenance to all. If we ever needed to honor darkness, it’s now...
So what should we be teaching about the “festival of lights”? If darkness nurtures the light, then Chanukah is a time when we are planting seeds of light. That is what the tiny flames of the Chanukah candles really look like, after all.
And that is the actual experience of sitting and watching the candles. No one sits in front of the menorah thinking, “I can’t wait for these candles to grow so bright that there’s no more darkness.” Darkness is the condition that makes the candles beautiful and sweet. We can understand the meaning of Chanukah starting from that experience, rather than from some unintentionally dualistic, Hellenistic ideology that looks to expel darkness. Chanukah should be a celebration and savoring of the darkness, as well as an appreciation of the turning of the light.
One day, a student asked the rabbi: Rabbi, I know that to be Jewish is to have a special role, a special job in the world. Rabbi, what is my job as a Jew in the world?
The rabbi, never one to answer directly, looked at her students and said: Friends, what is the most important job in the world?
President of the United States! Someone shouted. Prime Minister of Israel, said another. Someone even said: Rabbi! Clearly, he was trying for a good grade. Firefighter! Doctor! Teacher! Artist! Teacher! Parent! The answers came from all corners of the room.
The student looked at the rabbi and said: But Rabbi—what is the right answer? What is my job as a Jew in the world?
And she said: Once upon a time, long before ipads and iphones, before TV and streaming, even before there was electricity—there was a person in every town who was responsible for lighting up the streets. On the streetcorners, lamps sat—ready to be lit each night as the sun began to set. And there was one person whose job it was to walk from street to street, from lamp to lamp, with a flame he carried at the end of a long pole. Each evening, the rabbi said, this person would walk her route, lighting each and every lamp—no matter how cold it was, or how hard it was to reach.
But, what if the lamp is in a desolate wildnerness, far from everything and everyone, one of the students asked? The rabbi answered: Then, too, it must be lit. And what, asked one of the students, if the lamp is in the middle of an OCEAN!! The rabbi smiled and said: The one must put on a bathing suit, jump into the water, and light it there. Without it, she said, there would be no light.
The student looked again at the rabbi and said: Rabbi, I still don’t know the right answer. What is my job as a Jew in the world??
The rabbi looked at her students and said: You can be anything that you want to be. But no matter what you decide to do with your life, you must be a lamplighter on the streets of the world.