Two weeks ago I talked about Paris. Now it's San Bernardino on our minds. Once again our favorite radio shows entertain long discussions of gun control as if, if we took the guns away (which we should) it would stop violence (which it won't). Before guns there were swords, spears, sticks. Before commando-style attacks there were village raids, pogroms, crusades and imperial expansion, dating back into antiquity and far beyond.
But our focus gets drawn to the small and immediate question of guns, because guns frighten us (rightly so); and because this week's crime couldn't have been implemented without them. And because it seems like something our leaders can reasonably do, and leaders' doing something seems important.
But underneath, we suppress the awareness that without guns this attack, or something else like it, would still have happened, on that day, or another, in that place, or somewhere else. We know that every era of human history has had its share of anger and vengeance; ideology, heroism, misplaced heroism, martyrdom. There will always be causes that some people are willing to die for and some people are willing to kill for. Some of these might even be good causes, or would be if they weren't stained with the blood of innocent people.
So this has been the sorry state of my mind throughout this week - actually since Monday, when my 18-year old's classes at the University of Chicago were cancelled because of a shooting threat and the campus went on lockdown. I have been stuck with the lurking thought that somehow, as we have our umpteenth post-shooting debrief, we're missing a bigger picture. That what's going on is bigger than we admit, the arc much longer, the cycles ancient and unstoppable.
And that is a troubling place to arrive at. Because we are a people of Tikkun Olam. We share a value and a belief that it is our job to repair the world. And to do that, we have to believe that the world is reparable. This doesn't just apply to Jews who know the term Tikkun Olam. Every bit of activism and advocacy that we as citizens engage in; every time any one of us votes; we do so with a belief that we can change things for the better, that we are part of a project of making a healthier, safer world.
But then San Bernardino happens, and we think: eyn chadash tachat hashemesh. For all our efforts, there is nothing new under the sun.
Then I had breakfast with my friend Orren (not my husband Oren, who is, technically, also a friend). I wondered aloud what we're supposed to be doing if the world is unchangeable. What does Tikkun Olam mean if the world can't be fixed?
Never at a loss for a good analogy, Orren said something like this. Imagine that you're hammering something and you accidentally bring the hammer down on your thumb. You're in great pain. For three days no matter what you're doing, the front of your mind is thinking, "My thumb! My thumb! My thumb!" And you forget that the rest of your body is not hurting that way. That the parts of you that are okay are outnumbering the thumb.
I tried to absorb what this meant. He wasn't taking issue with my sad assesment that violence and tragedy are part and parcel of this world. But he took issue with my seeing it as the primary face of this Creation, as the primary unfolding. He said, we get transfixed by the throbbing thumb because it's hard to hold both the pain and the wellness in the same embrace.
I heard the truth in what he said. Paris and San Bernardino grab our attention and won't let go because fear is so compelling and self-sustaining. Our fear makes the world a predominantly dangerous place, and that perception of danger in return makes us fearful.
And that's the throbbing thumb. Because mostly the world is a friendly place. Mostly people are generous and kind. They are caring more often than not, at least when push comes to shove. Heroic — not in NRA-touted, gun-brandishing, attack-stopping ways, but in small ways: standing up for others, helping in emergencies, sharing kindness when not strictly required. Even when they're mean and angry, they mostly don't shoot people...
We spend a lot of time wondering how to make people into better people. And we forget to notice that most people are already better people. That the news reports are not a snapshot of the world but of a specific, colorful, bad thing happening in a much larger context in which many good things happen too. What might our level of hopefulness or well-being be if we also heard news reports about babies getting born or love found or jobs acquired or parks dedicated or music written or art made or medical achievements or good deeds or useful educational or agricultural policies piloted in other countries? Not as token human interest features, but as headlines.
So in a world in which some terrible things happen and also many, many good things, and where that promises to continue to be the case, what is our role? What does Tikkun Olam mean for us?
Maybe our job is not to fix but to illuminate. To shine a light on all that is good in this world. To witness and testify. To nurture and encourage. To act in kind ways, not for the purpose of bringing about an impossible global repair, but just to make sure that in this great unfolding, the balance stays weighted toward kindness.
Our job: to illuminate. To bring a light to dark places and to be part of the light of the many already-bright places too. And now, at the top of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, is the right time to remember and rededicate ourselves to this task.
So let me tell you a story about light. It goes like this.
In the beginning of the Creation, God said, yehi or. Let there be light. And there was light, and God saw that it was good. It wasn't light as we generally experience it. It wasn't generated by the sun or reflected by the moon. It was the purest light of Divinity. By this light one could see from one end of Creation all the way to the other. Even after the sun and moon and stars were created, it was still this great light that illuminated all things.
After we were created at the close of Day 6, this light shone for another 36 hours: twelve hours of Shabbat evening, twelve hours of Shabbat day, and twelve hours of twilight before Shabbat finally trailed off. The newborn human experienced this light directly only that one time, that first shabbos, when all things were new.
When Shabbat finally ended, this first light of Creation was stored away, it became the or ganuz, the hidden light. And instead, the sun was ignited and night and day finally looked different from each other.
So what happened to that first light? Well, some say it was pressed right into the words of Torah. And we have the ability to release it. In fact, every time we do a mitzvah, we release more of that light from its hiding place.
One clever proof of this comes from the 19th century Gerer rebbe known as the Sefat Emet, in the way that all numerological proofs are clever. He pointed out that there are 248 affirmative mitzvot in Torah. That is, 248 ways that we can be of service through things we do - kind acts, blessings, justice, generosity, etc. Add to this score of 248 another 2 bonus points representing ahavah and yir'ah — the love and the awe that motivate us to act well and to do mitzvot — and that totals 250. And 250 happens to be the numerological value of nun (50) plus resh (200). And what do nun and resh spell? Ner. Candle. Lamp. Light. When we do mitzvot with reverence and with love, we become a ner, a candle illuminating the dark places.
In case that's not enough, the Sefat Emet offers another proof of our role as channelers of light. He points to a verse of Proverbs (20:27):
נר ה' נשמת אדם חפש כל חדרי בטן
Ner Adonai nishmat adam, chofes kol chadrei vaten. "God's lamp is the human spirit, which casts light on the innermost chambers." God's lamp is the human spirit. Our neshomes are a light that illuminate dark places — in our world, in our communities, in our own hearts. Each of us has a spark of that first light in us, and that spark is our neshamah, our soul.
So is this story of the original divine light waiting to be released by us true? What do I know? But whether the story is true or not, it is a clear indication of how much our tradition believes in us. How much our ancestors want us to be a light. Maybe we can "fix" the world; maybe the world is not "fixable." But still, each of us is a lamp, a light, a candle. We do our kind acts. We keep bringing on the light.
Oh - I nearly forgot. What does any of this have to do with Chanukah?
Well, here's another story. When we fought off the Greeks and rededicated our Temple in Jerusalem so many years ago, there was only enough oil to last for one day. How long did the light burn? Eight days. So what is the miracle? Mostly we think of it as a miracle of oil. The oil kept coming, it kept burning. But how about this. What if the oil did indeed run out, but the light continued to shine for 8 days?
This would not be a miracle of oil but a miracle of light. The light would have to be coming from a source other than burning oil. Our tradition suggests that the light that burned for those 8 days was not an earthly flame but was in fact the or ganuz, the hidden light of Creation. And on Chanukah, even though we light candles of real wax, with real wicks, using real matches, we are to understand that we are observing a flame that comes not from physics but from the first moment of Creation.
Another rebbe, Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, the B'nai Yissachar, gives yet another elegant mathematical proof of this. As noted above, the light of Creation shone for 36 hours on that first Shabbat. For that reason, the number 36 has always been the secret address of the or ganuz, of that hidden, primeval light. Whenever in our tradition we see the number 36, we are meant to also think about that light. So how many candles do we light to mark the miracle of Chanukah? On the first night we light one. On the second night two. Add all eight night's candles and, presto, we light 36 candles, reminding us that what we are seeing, at least in part, is not light of this world, but of Divinity.
So what do we do with this light that we see, this light that we are, in a world that might just not be fixable? Chanukah reminds us to shine. Just to shine is a miracle. Shine light on all the blessings of this world, on all the hope and dedication and kindness. And brighten the places of fear that seem so dark to us.
And remember that one candle can light another. So we can ignite each other too. And maybe even the light of heaven.
We might not be able to fix it all. But together, we'll keep the lights on.
All the wonderful Chassidic teachings quoted in and underlying this drash are from Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg's wonderful class Moadim L'Simchah, offered through the Aleph Rabbinic Ordination Program.