BY RABBI ARIEL STONE
I admit it, I’m afraid of the dark. The dark I’m afraid of is the kind that our ancestors used to associate with the primeval forests of Europe. They were deep and pathless, thick and disorienting. The darkness within which we mark the New Year of 5782 is caused by a vast, fearful and growing expanse of human cruelty, incompetence and stupidity. It is a darkness caused by human greed, arrogance and fear.
As I write this, we have endured 542 days of pandemic. White supremacist reactions to portents of social change exacerbate endemic racism; national and local governments seem hardly up to the challenge of deferred moral maintenance; the recent Supreme Court support of Texas’ criminalization of abortion after six weeks of pregnancy deliberately tears down protections for all of us who have a uterus and use it; wildfires, hurricanes, flooding and extreme heat and cold all mock the “once in a hundred years” description.
Like the wildfire smoke that appears in the distance and turns the sky into a hellscape, everywhere we look we see the encroaching darkness of fear and uncertainty. We find ourselves living in a time of Biblical plagues – and Biblical curses. The Torah described the anxiety we suffer in ancient terms that are too terribly relevant:
The life you face shall be precarious; you shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival.
In the morning you shall say, “If only it were evening!” and in the evening you shall say, “If only it were morning!” – because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see. (Devarim 28.67-68)
“Lo ta’amin b’khayekha” – you will not have faith in your life. For 200 years, the Western world has encouraged us to believe that we should “go it alone” and be “individuals” who make our own way in the world. Yet as social psychology teaches, the self is not designed to carry its own weight. How are we to have faith in the individual, as unpredictably and unfathomably callous as some are?
Our Jewish tradition is decidedly not individualistic. The common wisdom of our people is that we are and must be in relationship with others. The only question left is how we are in that relationship? How will we treat the other? Jewish tradition urges us to see we must stand together and relieve each other’s fearful isolation.
If life is a journey, then it is in the very nature of life that we must make our way through the darkness of an untracked wilderness. But this is no joyful voyage of discovery; the fear is paralyzing, and the darkness is deep. We have no guarantees that we will emerge into some quiet garden full of light and warmth and hope.
Rosh Hashanah, curiously, is a holy day of darkness. In Psalm 81.4, we read tik’u bahodesh shofar bakeseh l’yom hageynu, “sound the shofar at the covering of our holy day.” This “covering” is of the light of the moon, invisible to us at the new month.
What, then, brings us light during this dark time?
Just a few weeks ago, I was privileged to accompany to the grave Les Aigner, z”l, the last living Auschwitz survivor residing in Oregon. Les survived a darkness that swallowed the light of millions. Les used to speak about his survival of the Holocaust in schools, and once he was asked if he hated Nazis. “I try not to hate anyone,” he answered. “To be sure, I fight them any way I can, and I fight their evil. But hate only hurts me.”
The Zohar tells us that what illuminates the darkness of this holy time is the act of turning, each of us to each other, and in so doing, to HaShem. Turning toward others, as Les showed us by his gentle, courteous, beautiful life, is the only way to dispel the darkness of human hatred and callousness.
In this turning toward what ultimately matters, we see that light is a quality of the heart. Kindness is the light we need. In the great insight of the Jewish mystics, this light is not something that will be gifted to us out of nowhere. There is within each of us a light of holiness that the world needs desperately. It’s the reason given by the rabbis of the Talmud for the wandering of Abraham:
To what may Abraham be compared? To a king’s friend who saw the king walking in a dark alleyway. The friend began to show the king a light through the window. The king looked up and saw the friend and said, “come, and light the way for me.” (Bereshit Rabbah 30.10)
No great power will gift us from on high with the relief of light we need so badly. That power comes from us ourselves, and our way forward will be lit by us, sharing the little light we have with one another.
We don’t know where we are going or whether we will be OK. The lesson we need to learn, the lesson that Les Aigner taught by the way he lived every day of his life, is this: shine the light you have; share it at every opportunity. With kindness be profligate; be superfluous; be the biggest of spenders. Whatever joy we will find in life, taught Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, is the joy we help others to find.
Wherever we are going – and whether we are going to get there – does not matter nearly as much as whether we will kindly, gently and thoughtfully walk with each other.
Rabbi Ariel Stone, the longest serving congregational rabbi in Portland, is privileged to support the emergence of 21st century Judaism with Shir Tikvah in the Commons, TischPDX and the Clergy Leadership Incubator.