Illuminating the Month of Kislev
I once birthed a woman through a mental breakdown much as a midwife would deliver a baby. Our time together began as a conversation but a blackness in the woman was on its way out. Talk turned to tears and quickened to a deep mourning. Her body heaved with the burden and force of a secret that for over a decade had cost all her mental health to hide. And when she could no longer hold it in, she knelt on all fours, wailing, her pain spewing forth with such force it flashed her limbs outward. My impulse was to jump to my feet and run. I was young. The sounds in her throat frightened me. But I stayed, kneeling beside her, one hand on her back and the other on the ground, like the earth element in an electric circuit. When it was over, she slumped into the rug. Her cries became softer and her body limp. I waited a while, then left for help.
That dark evening, it struck me that perhaps it is not our descents that fill our heart with fear. Rather, the coldest terror is in not knowing where the bottom of the descent is. We turn and flail in a gyre of pain. We sense things falling apart but cannot identify the precise moment at which they actually disconnect. Our dark moments are rarely as dramatic as my friend’s. They run the gamut of human experience: a relationship in bad shape, finances in worse, ill health or a state spiritual dis-ease. But regardless of the specific issue at hand, it is only once we reach the bottom that we can actually be present to the new reality we are faced with. Only when we become present to a reality can we begin to move on from it. So “hitting rock bottom” is not the worst thing after all. The fear that our fall is possibly into an endless pit is, it seems to me, worse than lying on the gravel we finally fall on. For it is precisely when we sink to the lowest level, at the very moment we are furthest, that we can begin to return.
Living takes skill. Getting toilet trained and learning how to hold a pencil is a starting point. And then there’s the rest of it. There’s the skill of laughing at ourselves, of delaying gratification, of introspecting and demanding that we step up to the plate, and even the skill of knowing when to neglect an ideal in order to keep it. Long lists of life-skills that all the coaches in the world cannot embed in our hearts. Could it just be that we don’t grasp the other stuff because we know neither how to run nor return?
Each of us has to discover the secret of “running and returning.” “When I grow up,” we tell ourselves, “Well…when I grow up I’ll run and run. To tinsel town and the bank. I’ll run errands. I’ll run my household, the office, my very self! I’ll run for President of My Own Life!” Schools train us to gallop ambitiously forward. But if I’m running for the wrong reasons then I’m not truly moving forward. And if that’s the case, then I’ll never learn the secret of coming back. If ego is what compels me forward, I am blind to the deep mysteries that can free me when I fall. I become so locked into moving on that I lose access to the very skill that makes “moving on” possible under any circumstance. I need to acquire the ability to say, “I’ve made a mistake. A big one. And this is where I’m at. But beneath the mistake lies my true G-dly identity. With this I can begin to return and rebuild.”
Being that learning how to return is the key to going forward, it is vital to know how to discern the point of the deepest darkness. Many times we think we’re in that darkest moment of the night when the shadows are thick and indigo black. But we’re not sure. And the uncertainty fills us with fear. We fall into a depression. But if I can recognize the bottom, I can begin to navigate my way out.
It takes more than that though. I also have to know, even when I’m all the way down in the pit, that Darkness comes from Light: When G-d began to form existence, there was much light. So much, in fact, that nascent reality couldn’t hold it all. Much as a crystal goblet would shatter at the bottom of a waterfall, the vessels of the emerging creation burst in their inability to hold onto the radiance – and darkness was born…So darkness is the product of too much light, or at least that highest luminescence which exceeds the capacity of our vessel! I must absorb this knowledge in order to acquire the skill of returning. As we navigate our journeys and encounter the challenges G-d has prepared for us, we can open avenues of redemption through remembering that the concealment around us is pregnant with this primordial light.
That’s the reason the first commandment given to us as a nation was to sanctify the moon. As Jews, we must watch the night waiting for the light. Regardless of who we are and what our circumstances are, each must take to her hill or hideout and look to the sky in search of emerging rays. Correct, we don’t want to “go gently into the night,” but our approach is not so much to “rage against the dying of the light” as it is to await the dawn. And with the intensity of our gaze to hasten its coming. Whatever news the day has brought us, no matter the feelings that well up within us – and no matter the elegance and eloquence with which our thoughts and feelings impress upon us that things are bleak and hopeless – we must gaze into the darkness, looking for the glow it conceals, while we await the new moon. Through doing that, we actually birth it into being.
As we gaze at the blackened sky looking for the moon, we must remember yet another secret. Namely, that not only is the night permeated with a luminous essence, but that the moon is darkest precisely when it’s closest to the sun. Counter-intuitively, just as the earth is closest to the sun in the dead of winter, so too is the moon when it disappears. The closer it moves to the shining source of all its light, the smaller the moon is.
Life is like that, too. Have you observed the silence of someone in the presence of a remarkable person? To experience the greatness of another, is to be a moon up close against the sun. And then, if the other is truly great, she doesn’t swallow you up like a black hole sucking stars into its core. If the other is truly great, she empowers you to slide outwards on your orbit and gather light as you go. Similarly, all learning has its new moon phase. It happens when you’re sitting before a master, and what you knew becomes effaced and a new understanding is born. True healers, the redeemers, help us navigate these dark intervals. They remind us that darkness is pregnant with light. But even more so, they teach us that in the very moment that we disappear, we are born afresh. And thereby, we become a sun that lights up the heavens.
That’s why we were given the commandment to sanctify the moon at the time of our liberation from Egypt. The two are one – the moon being born of nothingness, and our people emerging in freedom from dismal servitude. When we reached the forty-ninth level of impurity, that’s when we could find the light. Just like the moon that has to turn squid-ink black before its crescent can appear. Our point of deconstruction is the very moment when our movement back to G-d and Truth began. It is the moment we were born as a nation. It is our new moon phase. That point delineates the secret of all our returns.
Every new moon encapsulates this paradoxical truth. But the dark new moon that is most pregnant with light is that of Kislev. In the Northern hemisphere we’ve turned the clocks back. The sugar red leaves of autumn crunch underfoot. Tree barks are white and pinkish grey against a darker sky. Afternoons are cut short, and indoors steam hisses at the cold. The whole month of Kislev calls out, Kes, Kes!, “Concealment, concealment!” It’s a month when darkness around us is on the ascendency. And yet Kislev is the month of Chanukah, the festival of light. It’s winter. The earth is closer to the sun. And on Kislev’s New Moon, the moon is closer still. All that blackness bespeaks an infinite revelation. The last two letters of the Hebrew name of the month, the lamed and the vav, call forth “Light! Revelation! Manifestation!” Lo, they can be read in Hebrew. To him! Bring out the light and shine it to the other, out into the world. Kes-lo. From the concealment comes revelation. From within a new moon pregnant with light, come the thirty six lights of eight nights, the flames of Chanukah.
It’s one thing to look back and know that my friend, in her most painful moment, was being set free. It’s one thing to know that from kes comes lo, from concealment comes revelation. It’s another thing entirely, to get that in our own lives. But if we meditate on the secrets of “returning” and remind ourselves that G-d is, after all, the One who directs our waxing and waning, we might just find ourselves born into a consciousness and world of light. It is the light that the darkness has held in utero since the outset of creation. It is the radiance of our future. It is our most natural state.
This article is based on a teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Breslev, Likkutei Halachot, Rosh Chodesh, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Sefer HaSichot 5752, Shabbat Parshat Vayishlach. It was originally published on www.thejewishwoman.org. (And if you're a writer with something meaningful to say, email the editor Sara Esther Crispe with your offering.)