A child spends a sunny, summer day in the park. She runs and jumps, climbs trees, makes up games, forgets them, and makes new ones. She pokes and prods in the dirt, exploring, finding ants amidst the grass. And she spins, and spins, and spins, whirling and laughing, her face brighter even than the mid-day light on it. It’s a happy day. And in-between joining in with her games, and telling her not to climb quite so high, or taste-test the dirt as she digs in it, her mother captures a dozen or so fractions of a moment with the family camera.
Later, after the bright day is done and that child is in bed her mother picks the camera up again. And here I reveal both my age and my in-born nostalgia from having been raised in the birthplace of the Kodak company, because rather than scrolling through a series of images on a screen, the mother removes the film from the camera. She stretches it out from the roll, and with the right paper and chemicals, patience, practice and attention, she turns the little happy fractions of time that she captured with her camera into pictures that can be held and kept. To be cherished, precious as they are to help remember a happy summer day, and passed on, one day perhaps, to that daughter’s own children, who were never there to see their own daughter smile when she was young, but through the magic of photography, they can feel like they were.
That magic is a delicate thing. It is so fragile that light can destroy it completely. If that mother had opened up the canister of film in the bright light of day, it would have blotted out everything she’d worked to keep: the green of the grass, the blue of the sky, all of the joy written across her young child’s face. The film depends on light; brief, controlled exposure to it is what allows the picture to be taken, but too much, and all you are left with is a bright, white emptiness. So the work of turning film into photograph has to happen in a literal dark room. Film, and the miracle of it, depends on light, and also on darkness.
Last night was the seventh night and today is the seventh day of Hanukkah, Judaism’s festival of light. It’s story, as we heard earlier, the struggle for religious freedom and the determination of a subject people to resist the oppression of a greedy and intolerant empire. And its most famous element is the miracle of the oil – which, the story goes, lasted for eight days in the temple that once stood in Jerusalem, so that the light persisted long enough that new oil could be acquired and the light never have to be put out again. It is for this reason that at this season, in Jewish homes all over the world tonight people will light the nine total candles for the eighth and final night of Hanukkah. Wherever possible, they’ll be placed in a window, so that they can be seen from the outside. To share the light with the world.
But the ritual needs the night to make it possible – a light in the day can’t be seen as far, can’t mean the same thing. The set of nine candles or oil lamps or electric lights kindled on Hanukkah, are commonly referred to as a menorah. This isn’t wrong, but it’s an incomplete truth. The Hanukkah menorah or hanukkiah is a special modification of the menorah – a variant of an earlier original that’s become much more famous, just like Jimi Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower or Joan Jett’s recording of I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll. The original menorah was a very particular oil lamp and an essential element of the original temple in Jerusalem. It’s so old and important, actually, that it is supposed to have predated the temple. The menorah is so important, in fact, that the biblical book of Exodus devotes an entire nine verses to God’s instructions to Moses on the exact specifications for it: pure gold, with wick trimmers and trays made of the same, decorated with designs like the buds and blossoms of an almond tree. And, very importantly, one central column with three branches on each side – for a total of seven lights, not nine. The hanukkiah is a riff on this all-important original design – almost a visual joke. It says, “This is the funny menorah to remind you of the more important, serious one, and the time that it burned for eight days with one day’s worth of oil. Eight days, so two extra arms. Get it?”
But here’s the thing about that miracle: no one seems to have made any mention of it until centuries after the rest of the Hanukkah story was well established. Parts of that story are definitely historical: ancient Judeah really was occupied by a Greek empire, centered in Syria, and really did expel the Greek forces to be a free country again, at least for a while. And many, many details about that conflict are written down in the first and second books of the Maccabees – which, somewhat confusingly, are not considered to be part of the bible in the Jewish tradition, but are included therein by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox authorities.
The narrative in the books of the Maccabees follows a wide range of characters and events. The recapture and purification of the temple is, obviously, a major subject. But nowhere in it is an oil miracle mentioned. The first mention of the oil that burned for eight days that we can still find today comes in the Talmud – a critical compilation of wisdom and teaching from the early rabbis, who lived and taught just slightly less than two thousand years ago. While I was not there, and so am not in a position to accuse the ancient rabbis of simply making up a story that better served their values, I can say that they likely had reason to want to take the focus off of the Maccabees. Successful freedom fighters they were, but they also did a number of unsavory things in order to win the day, and had no reservations about turning their violence against other Jews with whom they had political and religious differences. And the dynasty that they founded to rule over Judeah changed the rules of religion to suit their own political ends – something the rabbis could not have looked back on favorably. The oil miracle shifted the focus from the particulars of the Maccabees to something more universal and less tied to the compromised and often dirty work of war and governance.
That miracle seems so important, in part, because there was a religious obligation to keep the menorah in the temple burning. That it had been put out by the Greeks to begin with was a source of shame and one of the signs of the desecration of the temple. Lighting it again was a symbol of a return to normalcy – to holiness, in fact. And lighting it was also a sign of hope, almost an irrational hope. Because if not for something miraculous happening, the light would have had to just be allowed to die out again. To some ways of viewing things, it would have been as bad as it was before, or even worse, since there wouldn’t be the excuse of foreign conquest. Now, there’s no explanation given in the bible for why this particularly light needed to burn all the time. Like a lot of things in the bible, the final explanation, at least within the book itself, is basically, “because God said so.” Left by itself, that may not be a compelling argument for you. But it also gives the reader space to consider the why. Across history, wars have been fought over competing explanations for this commandment or that injunction, but the ingenuity of human moral imagination has also spurred people and communities on to great and noble things. And when I think about the light of the original menorah, where it takes me is back to the first creation story, at the very beginning of the bible, in Genesis.
Here, in this story, the source of all being says, “Let there be light,” and there is light. And then earth and sky, sun and moon, water and land, plants and the animals of the sea, and land, and air. Human beings come to exist, and the very concept of rest itself. But before any of this, before everything that is, that makes up the cosmos: there is darkness. It is a necessary precursor to everything that comes after it. Like the canvass on which the world is painted. Viewed this way, light isn’t something that drives out the darkness: the two are necessary compliments.
In fact, if the two are compliments than it should be unambiguous that in the universe as we understand it, darkness is the senior partner. Consider the sky over our heads. During the day, the sky can be quite lovely – clear or cloudy, bright or dim. But except at rare moments, just before or after dawn, or during an eclipse, the daytime sky only allows us to see one star: our local sun. And a mighty fine star it is, but it is only one among billions and billions. That reality only comes into view when the sun goes down, and the stars are able to come out. The vastness of existence is hinted at, then, and the beauty of the countless stars that we are always surrounded by but can only sometimes see is only apparent because of the contrast provided by the darkness between them.
In the religion of ancient Egypt, the night sky was believed to be the body of the goddess Nut, who swallowed the sun each night in order to allow it to set, and rest. Unlike other mythological beings who might swallow the sun, Nut’s dally action wasn’t malicious or threatening – it was an act of kindness. Without her, the sun would burn in the sky forever, and the earth below it would never get any relief. All water would dry up; crops would wither and die. The sun is entirely necessary for all life on this planet to exist, but the ancient Egyptians also understood that the regular absence of the sun – from each section of the globe, in turn – is equally essential to sustain our lives here. For just one example of how a relatively small change could have monumentally disastrous implications, look at Mercury. Mercury turns three full rotations for every two times that it orbits the sun. That means that every year on Mercury has only about one and one third days in it, which leaves the surface of the planet even more badly scorched than it would otherwise be from being so close to the sun.
But in addition to the need for a break from the heat of the sun, and the why in which darkness provides a contrast to light, the miracle of the universe depends on darkness. In the discipline of astrophysics – the study of what we can observe of the heavens, and what those observations mean about the universe we inhabit and are part of – there are a great many observable phenomenon that don’t make sense based on what we can see. Basically stars and whole galaxies move in ways that they shouldn’t, as though there was something there influencing them, that isn’t. Except, there must be, because the influence is there. And the explanation that has been developed for this strange circumstance is something called “dark matter” – stuff that we can’t see or otherwise detect directly, but which is real and pervasive enough that it bends the entire trajectory of billions and billions of stars. By conventional estimates, this dark matter makes up 85% of all the stuff in the universe. The cosmos is very literally held together by darkness.
Langston Hughes, one of the greatest poets of the Harlem Renaissance and of the English language wrote,
To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me—
He was a black man living in a society –
the same society as us now – in which whiteness was taught as being good, and
blackness as bad. Where light means right and dark means wrong. And in that
context his choice was between accepting that instruction and conceding to
self-hatred or embracing self-love by finding joy and beauty and value in
darkness. In this time of Hanukkah, and a holiday season, more broadly, which
is defined far more by what we can see and do at night than by what happens in
the daylight hours, I commend to you this truth: that the darkness so necessary
to our very existence is a miracle unto itself, and that its partnership with
light is wondrous, and holy. In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most beloved
portions of the Hindu scriptures, it is said of the Divine, “It is the source
of light in everything that shines. It is beyond the darkness, it is said. It
is knowledge and the goal of knowledge. It resides in every human heart.”[i] Therefore may you know
that darkness resides in your heart, among many other things, and may you know
that that is a good thing. Just as the surface of the earth needs the respite
of night, and film development needs the protection of a dark room, our hearts
need a share of darkness, too. The ability to feel the full range of emotion,
not only the pure positivity we might associate with light, but also the muted
and the somber and the hard. It is possible to have too much darkness, it’s
true, but it is equally possible to have too much light – not because there’s
anything wrong with being happy but because a heart that cannot feel pain is
not an honest heart. More than half of the universe is darkness – it is in us,
it is around us, it is necessary for us to live, and to be as we are. To live
in this world and to be grateful for it means being able to live with the
darkness, and to be grateful for its existence, too.
[i] Bhagavad Gita 13:18