It has been one of most traumatic weeks in the history of our country. Celebrating and singing Hanukkah songs seems somewhat of a farce when ICUs are nearly full; mental health clinics overrun from those suffering with anxiety and suicidal ideation. This is the first time in which embracing the light has been difficult and even, misleading.
On the first night of Hanukkah, I found myself staring at the Hanukkiah. Instead of relishing in the idea that one light dispels the darkness, I found myself savoring the shadows. One small candle accompanied by seven empty, hollow spaces. Dark, cavernous, vacant spots. Even on the Hanukkiah, there is a symbolic acknowledgement that light does not always rid someone of the bitterness they hold. Rather, we live with both. Hold space for both. Honor both. The existence of hope and hunger living side by side.
My sister-in-law just began a job as a kidney transplant coordinator at St. Joseph’s in Orange County, California. She shared two stories about her start at the hospital. Each morning, the physicians and nurses huddle together, bow their heads, and offer a moment of silence to those that have died from COVID-19. And within that same huddle, in one unified voice, they scream together, “We will beat Covid!” Nitza also explained that daily, while she hears several code blues, she’s always startled when a lullaby is played over the loudspeaker, signifying the birth of a baby. The constant recognition of life within death. The honoring of both hardship and joy. Never pushing fear away. Validating grief and loss. Looking into someone’s eyes and knowing their story is shaped with jagged points of pain, depression, laughter, and love.
Towards the beginning of the pandemic, we explored the plagues during the story of Passover. The plague of darkness was supposedly so thick, it felt touchable. But Midrash explains that even through the darkness, the Egyptians could see the Israelites eating, drinking, basking in the light. Darkness becomes darker, when haunted by those that only hold light, unable to make room for anything else.
We are living in a time in which the world needs light. Perhaps more than ever. A vaccine administered this week reveals a miracle witnessed in our time. But we are also living within the throes of the harshest months of this pandemic. Our personal pangs of darkness must be seen. A darkness that cannot be ignored. Those experiencing darkness must not lose themselves because others can’t bear their existence.
And it is the Hanukkiah that teaches us how to acknowledge both the darkness and the light. Flickering candles enveloped by hollowed space.
Hanukkah: Sing with exultation. Cry with anguish. Pray that we all emerge out of this year, darkness sitting with light, cradling our pain, and holding our joy.
Rabbi Nicole Guzik is at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.