Like so many, I grew up with the ritual of having a parent turn on a nightlight before putting you to bed at night.
For me, the comforting warm glow of that tiny lightbulb was like a beacon of security; a reassurance that the dark night wasn’t just an empty void.
We don’t like the dark. It’s scary – filled with the unknown.
There’s certainly something evolutionary about this fear – for thousands of years, the night was filled with dangers, and something to be feared for good reason!
But dislike of the dark is not something limited to children or to our prehistoric ancestors.
I lived in New York City for ten years, where, come nightfall, any anxieties at the darkness are calmed by the millions of little points of light that spark on, without fail. Pitch black is not something familiar to New York.
At night, I could always look out my window and be reassured that someone was awake. Even if they were across the alleyway, I knew that I wasn’t alone. My existential dread was calmed by the warm, reassuring glow of my neighbour’s TV.
There’s something spiritually nourishing about nighttime in New York. It’s a reminder that we’re not alone in the world.
And then I moved to Washington D.C. This is a busy city, for sure. But at night… it’s quiet and dark. Sleep specialists might tell you that’s a good thing… but I know better.
My first night here, I had flashbacks to my childhood. Without the comfort of my neighbours’ lights, I had nostalgic pangs for my nightlight.
And don’t we all recognize this feeling, buried somewhere deep in our guts?
But of course, “It’s 2018,” you say! “We humans have harnessed the power of fire! We’ve discovered electricity, and invented the LED lightbulb, which won’t burn out, even after 100 years of continual use!”
To this, I say: you can be thirty-five years old, and then something goes bump in the dark, and your mind starts racing. We desperately want to be able to see, to look at things head-on with the power of our own eyes.
And here we are, on the longest, darkest night of the year.
It’s not a coincidence that so many cultures have festivals of light right at this time of year – we all have a desire to bring more light, more warmth into the world when it seems to be at its darkest. There’s an ancient wisdom to this.
We want to fill the darkness with light.
How can we do this?
Some wisdom from the Torah:
In this week’s parasha, we reach the end of the book of Genesis. The story of Joseph is wrapping up. Jacob, his father (who had thought Joseph was dead, and hadn’t seen him for years), sentimentally recounts the story of the death of his beloved wife, Joseph’s mother, Rachel.
There’s a powerful moment as Joseph brings his two children, Ephraim and Menasseh, to see their grandfather before he dies.
It’s bittersweet, filled with the poignant beauty of one generation passing the torch to another. But it’s darkly dramatic, confronting the reality of death and Jacob’s sorrow. And on top of this, Jacob is nearly blind – quite literally, living in the dark!
What does Jacob do, in this darkest of moments?
He can barely see his grandchildren – he has to ask Joseph who they are! But when Joseph tells him, Jacob says: “Bring them closer to me, so that I can bless them.” Jacob reaches out, embraces his grandchildren, kisses them, and offers them a blessing for their future.
In one of the darkest moments of his life, Jacob looks ahead to the future with gratitude and blessing. He says to Joseph: “I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see my grandchildren, as well!”
Jacob offers a beacon of light in a moment of darkness.
Like our ancestors so long ago, we all have to make the long trek through the night at some point. Maybe it’s a literal darkness. Maybe it’s metaphoric.
How do we do it? One interpretation of this piece of Torah offers some brilliance: There’s something significant about Jacob embracing and kissing his grandchildren. This was no ordinary hug and kiss between family members.
Everyone wants to be seen, to be recognized. Remember – Jacob is nearly blind. Maybe his grandchildren would have mistaken his inability to see them as a sign that he didn’t love them as much.
So he draws them closer to convey his love.
We all have our limitations. Sometimes, it’s dark and we can’t see. But instead of hiding in the dark and recoiling away, Jacob reaches out with warmth, love and blessing.
When the night is long and dark – what do you do? You can hide, paralyzed by fear, or your own sense of inadequacy, or inabilities.
Or you can be the light for others.
And here’s the genius: Jacob’s inability to see light doesn’t diminish his ability to give light.He still has a warm embrace, and an open heart that wants to give blessing to others.
When surrounded by the darkness, each one of us still has the power to offer some of our own light and warmth.
The Talmud (Megillah 24b) tells a beautiful story:
One time, I was walking in the absolute darkness of night, and I saw a blind person who was walking through the dark, with a torch in his hand.
I asked him: “Why do you need this torch, if you are blind?”
He told me: “As long as this torch is in my hand, people can see me, and save me from the danger.”
The light that we offer in the darkness – even with all of the things that we are blind to – can offer warmth and direction to others, and indeed, it can save us, too.
What is the light you have to give?
Like Jacob, may you radiate it out to others, especially when the world seems at its darkest.