Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Winter begins today. Rosh Hodesh does too. This combination occurs only once every thirty years or so; not quite the infrequency of last year’s Thanksgiving – Hanukkah combo, but this confluence of solstice and new moon is every bit as powerful as last year’s combo. Last year we matched turkey with latkes. This year we link nocturnal darkness to nocturnal length.
The astronomical solstice occurs at6:03 PM today, New York time, and the new moon appears two hours later, at 8:35 PM. So we’re not talking about the two occurring simply on the same day. We’re talking about the two natural events happening within a few hours of each other. Today is the darkest day possible, with the least amount of sunlight north of the equator, as well as the least possible moonlight at night. Things can’t possibly get darker than today. This is without a doubt, the darkest day of the year.
When we are enveloped by darkness, we naturally react as Adam did, according to a story from the Talmud:
Our Rabbis taught: When the first Adam saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, ‘Woe is me, perhaps because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion. This then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he began keeping an eight days’ fast. But as he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer, he said, ‘This is the world’s course’, and he set forth to keep an eight days’ festivity. In the following year he appointed both as festivals. Now, he fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but the [heathens] appointed them for the sake of idolatry.
It is natural to fear darkness, but today’s confluence also gives us the rare opportunity to embrace and even celebrate the gift of night. Unlike our ancestors, who had to face the darkness head-on, we are able to take measures to escape the night completely, hiding behind street lights and urban sprawl and within the illumined – and illusory – safety of our homes.
As nature writer Henry Beston has written, “With lights and ever more light we drive the holiness of the night ever back to the forests and the sea; the little villages, the crossroads even, will have none of it. Are modern folk perhaps afraid of the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of stars? Having made themselves at home in a civilization obsessed with power, which explains its whole world in terms of energy, do they fear at night for their dull acquiescences and the patterns of their beliefs? Be that answer as it will, today’s civilization is full of people who do not have the slightest notion of the character and poetry of the night, who have never seen night.”
Tonight is our best chance in thirty years to experience night – and then to truly understand the meaning of Hanukkah:
When it is darkest, when it appears that the sun will never return and the moon will only wane, we are the ones who must both embrace the darkness and begin to manufacture the light. Light has its greatest significance only where there is darkness. In total darkness, a tiny candle can dazzle the eye.
As Hanukkah makes the turn and heads down the stretch, the days will begin to get longer and the nights a tiny bit brighter – the miracle of lights will be made manifest before our eyes.
But for tonight, it’s the confluence of darknesses that we must address, and the magical dance between that darkness and our sliver of carefully manufactured light we celebrate, as the night envelops us.