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Seeing the Dark in a Different Light

by Rabbi Dev Noily

Hanukkah invites us to explore the holy possibilities of darkness. Our practice of Hanukkah can radically challenge our society’s privileging of light over darkness – a privileging that perpetuates, and may be rooted in, our structural racism. We can see this in our language—both what we say and what we hear.  And especially, the ways that we use “light” and “dark” as metaphors for “good” and “bad” or for “hope” and “despair.”  In these subtle and not-so-subtle ways, our language constantly delivers the message that lighter is better than darker, that white is holy and black is corrupt or bereft of holiness.

Hanukkah is especially susceptible to metaphors that fail to challenge, and that can reinforce the racial injustices of our time. And Hanukkah also creates an opening for Jewish sources to guide our use of language in different direction–as a path to liberation and justice.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes about Tisha B’Av, the day that commemorates communal loss and creates space for collective mourning:

It is the heart of summer: hot as a furnace, dry as the tomb. A shower, a breeze, are forgotten memories.  The earth is panting in exhaustion—almost as if the birthing of her harvest has gone awry, as if the birth-pangs will go on forever but here will be no fruit.

And people are exhausted too.  Their freshness and fertility, warmed and renewed by the sun of spring, has wilted as the sun grew still hotter.  We feel burnt out.  The whole world is being put to the torch. (Seasons of our Joy, p. 207)

Waskow offers a striking and powerful alternative to our dominant metaphors. Here, it is the excessof light and heat that is frightening, dangerous, and imperiling.  The saddest, most devastating time of the Jewish year comes not in the darkness of winter, but in the scorching heat and relentless light of summer.

The rabbis of the Talmud spoke about Torah as “black fire on white fire” (Palestinian Talmud Sotah 8:3), where the black fire is the letters themselves and the white fire is the space between them.  Both transmit meaning, and if we had only one without the other, there could be no Torah.

Darkness is associated with the generative state that precedes birth. Just as the Torah’s creation story begins with “darkness on the face of the deep,” (Gen. 1:2) so too our lives begin in the womb–the darkest, most protected and most nurturing place we may ever know.

Our ancestor Jacob encounters G-d not in the light of day, but deep in the night. Not once, but twice – as a young man fleeing home with an uncertain future, and as an accomplished, a middle-aged man about to face the unfinished business of his youth. It’s only in the dark solitude of these nights that Jacob vision is clear and his understanding at its deepest.

Our traditions and sacred stories are laden with opportunities to challenge the dominant metaphors of light and darkness that reinforce and perpetuate white supremacy in our society, opening up new avenues to seek understanding. As Hanukkah comes, may we explore and celebrate the gifts of the darkness.

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