Seventy Faces of Torah Monica Gomery

Hope in the Dark

hanuhanukMonica GmomeryParshat Miketz, Genesis 41:1-44:17

The story of Joseph, which continues this week in Parshat Miketz, tells of darkness and dreams. Joseph, the dreamer, is thrown into a pit by his brothers, and later descends into prison, becoming a dream interpreter. Miketz opens with Pharaoh’s prophetic dreams just as we begin to light the menorah. What ties Chanukah together with these parshiyot?

According to a midrash on Genesis, “When the sun sank at the termination of the first Shabbat, darkness began to set in.” The first six days featured a primordial and constant light, illuminating the world from end to end; not until the evening of the seventh day did the sun set. The midrash continues, “The first human was terrified, thinking: Surely the darkness will bruise me (yishufeni).”

Imagine a world bathed in light, suddenly lightless. Imagine experiencing nightfall for the first time. Yishufeni comes from the biblical shuf, meaning to bruise or grind away. Translators puzzling with this image have wondered if the author instead meant yisukeni, to envelop. Adam fears the darkness will damage and possibly overtake him.

The midrash relieves Adam’s uncertainty: “What did God do for him? God made him find two flints, which he struck against each other.” Light came forth and Adam uttered a blessing: “…borei m’orei ha-eish”—“God who creates the lights of fire”the blessing we say at the end of Shabbat. God does not lift the sun back over the horizon; instead, God guides Adam toward a new tool.

These days, it is the morning, not the night, that brings me the most fear. Every morning I turn on the radio and the breath is knocked out of me. Before the day has even begun, the light is drained from the world, and I find myself facing a future in which leaders run governments for profit, extract every remaining resource from the earth, and devalue human life to a point of no return. Others have described to me their tears, nightmares, and panic attacks over the last months, an embodied sense of terror.

Some of us, especially those with more security and privilege, are experiencing a sense of betrayal from a political system we had thought was just. Those who have always been awake to the corruption and violence embedded in our national systems nonetheless feel that we are entering uncharted territory. A leader in Native American liberation recently told me, “If Trump privatizes all sovereign native land, as he threatened, everything we know about advocating for ourselves may no longer be a useable tool.” Without our tools, we fear a future so dark that we have nothing to light the way.

But darkness can be a place of gestation. As Rebecca Solnit writes, “The future is dark, with a darkness as much of the womb as of the grave.” In the darkness, Joseph and Pharaoh were able to dream of the future. In our midrash, only the darkness could necessitate the invention of fire. We don’t yet know which tools we will need to defend human freedom and the health of our planet. This darkness may be the place of their creation, dreams that conjure and inspire, like something taking root beneath the soil.

At this time of year, darkness is not only existential and political, but literal. Our other eight-day festivals, Sukkot and Pesach, begin on a full moon, but Chanukah uniquely begins as the moon has all but completely waned, the sky almost empty of light. Rabbi Jacob Staub teaches: “We light our candles and lamps against the winter gloom, by way of affirming our faith that we will make it through… The commandment to light the Chanukah lights is the mitzvah of affirming faith and hope, especially when doing so is anything but reasonable.”

I recently learned something about hope from Bayla, a student in the Teen Beit Midrash where I teach. She taught this year’s cohort about Solarpunk, a “new eco-futurist speculative fiction genre”, explaining that most science fiction features despairing, pessimistic views of the future. “I really like optimism,” Bayla proclaimed, “If we are going to expend energy writing and reading novels about the future, why not imagine that the world can get better?”

Solarpunk envisions a future in which technology is used for ecological and human welfare. Key traits of Solarpunk include social inclusivity, environmental sustainability, renewable energy, and beauty. Those working within the genre gather examples of current communities and projects embodying these values, in order to imagine the future. If we are going to expend energy considering the future, why not imagine that the world can get better? There’s something striking about Bayla’s calculation that hope is efficacious, pragmatic, almost mathematical.

Hope and despair are deeply interwoven. Judaism teaches that brokenness is part of wholeness, inherent and built into the fabric of the universe. This simultaneity is present in the pride and depth of diaspora coupled with a messianic longing for a mythical Zion. It is present in the mystical belief in a God who has to go into hiding in order to set the world into motion. We are given language for something that could otherwise crush us with discouragement: The work will never be done, the world contains brokenness by definition.

And yet, the stories we tell about our world profoundly shape who we become. Just as despair has the potential to overtake us, the risk to hope has the potential to yield new realities. This is why Bayla is committed to telling stories about the possibility of change. Which story we tell carves a deep groove into our sense of what is possible. On Chanukah we light the menorah, insisting the light will return. This year, Bayla reminds me of Adam in the midrash, just after God shows him the flints– dazzled by light, staring into the tools of the future, and uttering holy language over them in gratitude.

We are walking toward night—not the first and not the last, but nonetheless a field of the unknown. Parshat Miketz opens with the words “Pharaoh was dreaming,” locating us in the darkness, more foreboding this year than ever. From Bayla I learn that it is worth our time to believe that the tools we need are out there for us. From Adam I am reminded that these tools— innovations, creations, and risks— can be sacred and worthy of blessing. And as I kindle the lights of Chanukah, our tradition’s wisdom fuels the flame of hope— small, humble hope, only the measure of one candle’s wick at a time. But growing through the mysterious darkness, illuminating my belief in something better.

Mónica Gomery is in her final year at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. She has worked as a Jewish educator at numerous institutions, with students from ages five to ninety-five, as far away as Chile and as nearby as her neighborhood shteibel. She currently works as a prison chaplain, teaches Talmud at the Boston Workmen’s Circle, and helps run the Boston Teen Beit Midrash.


Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.

 

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