It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
A Jewish legend teaches that when the sun set at the end of the world’s first day, Adam and Eve wept with terror, fearing that it might never rise again. All that night, they prayed fervently for the light to return, and when morning came, they sang songs of thanksgiving and praise.
We know, on a literal level, that every night will be followed by a new dawn. But when we find ourselves in dark places emotionally and spiritually, we, too, may very well feel as if we will never again experience light and joy. How do we find illumination when our life journeys take us into the dark night of the soul?
We can learn from the festival of Chanukah, which always falls around the new moon closest to the winter solstice — which is to say, the darkest days of the darkest month of the year. Throughout the holiday, we kindle candles — not huge bonfires but small sparks of light, adding a little more illumination each passing night. Thus we begin to dispel the darkness, bit by bit.
One of the great miracles in this world is the ability of a little light to banish deep darkness. During last summer’s solar eclipse, the difference between 99 percent and 100 percent was, quite literally, night and day. A tiny bit of sun goes a very long way. So, too, can one small candle can illuminate an entire room. Every day, legions of ordinary women and men perform countless unnoticed acts of valor. Violence and destruction make the headlines, but quiet goodness sustains the world.
I believe that this lesson forms the heart of the Chanukah story. What is the real wonder of the Maccabees tale? In truth, the notion of a single day’s worth of oil lasting for an entire week is a pretty small time miracle. Measured against, say, the plagues, or the parting of the Red Sea, slow burning fuel is no big deal. The more remarkable aspect of the story is the Maccabees’ courage to act. Given that paltry cruse of oil, they might very well have reasoned: “Since it will go out in a day, why bother to light it at all?” Yet they were determined to kindle that lamp, to move forward with the hope and faith that, with God’s help, they would find a way to continue that journey on the morrow.
For many of us, these are dark and difficult times. The state of our nation can easily lead us to despair and apathy. But though we may not finish the task of creating liberty and justice for all, neither are we free to desist from the hard work that lies ahead. Let each of us cast our light into the darkness — Chanukah reminds us that we are not alone and others will, invariably follow and join their light with our own.
Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.