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The light and the darkness of Chanukah

  • Adina 2014 pic
Eight years ago on first night of Chanukah, I gave birth to my first child. Afterwards we joked that she was determined to be born on Chanukah.
by ADINA ROTH | Dec 07, 2017

With a 37-hour labour, it seemed that this little one was waiting for night to turn to day to turn to night. She emerged with the arrival of the lights and miracles festival.  And she was our miracle baby.  For a day or so, I was on a birthing and mother’s high. Completely intoxicated with my child, recapping the highs and lows of the birthing experience, flooded by messages of love and warmth and overwhelmed every time I looked at or touched or even thought about my daughter. It felt as if I had been transported into the land of the wondrous and the miraculous. About three days later, with hormonal changes and who knows what else, the miracle had taken a very challenging plunge. I struggled to sleep at night and had developed a terrible onset of anxiety, something I had never experienced before. What had started out as perhaps the most wonderful time of my life swung into something incredibly challenging as the terms post-natal-depression suddenly became whispered and I felt I was losing control over the world around me and my self.  On about the fourth day of Chanukah, I reached out to some friends and also to my gynaecologist who prescribed some medication for me. I then began a six-week period of returning to my self. Mostly, I cocooned with my child and very close family, building up my reserves, trying to come to terms with the move from a place of such joy and abundance to an experience of such a fall.  I remember very clearly lighting the lights of Chanukah every single night.  The lighting that year took on a very special and different meaning for me. It was about starting in darkness and building up each day. It was about the possibility of hope and renewal. As we reached night eight, although I was still in the thick of my anxiety, the lights of Chanukah reminded me that people had been through hard times before and that from points very low, lightness had been restored.

Perhaps there is a painful analogy between my experience of a short-lived joy, followed by a plunge into something harder and deeper and the story of the Hasmoneans during our Second Temple Period. Indeed, we are reminded again and again that as wonderful and triumphant as it seemed to push the Greeks out of the Temple and restore the light and sacred rituals, the period of Jewish sovereignty was short lived and deferred by 200 years only, the utter destruction of our Second Temple and the beginning of a 2000 year exile.  What does it mean that our festival of miracles, recalls a miracle that didn’t have holding power?  What might this teach us about the nature of miracles in general?

Nachmanides and Maimonides differ on their approach to miracles. While Nachmanides regards miracles as the events of the everyday, arguing that we need to see G-d’s hand in every thing, the rising of the sun, the birth of a child, Maimonides says that the events of everyday life need to be regarded as the course through which our natural world runs.  Miracles are the reserve of the extraordinary and the transcendent.  For Nachmanides, miracles are a daily affair. For Maimonides, miracles are rare indeed, the splitting of the sea, the perpetuation  of a small amount of oil. When we sing Al Hanisim in the Amidah, we recall different kinds of miracles, those that are obvious, revealed (more akin to a Mainomidean idea) and those that are hidden and subtle, a la Nachmanides.  In today’s hyper-scientific world, Maimonides grand notion of the miraculous might feel remote from us and we might gravitate towards Nachmanides view of the miracle in the ordinary, the hidden. But what kind of miracle is childbirth?

On the one hand, childbirth happens every day, all the time. It is medically and scientifically explicable. But on the other hand, childbirth feels transcendent. Many describe the explosion of love that fills the heart of a new parent. It is probably one of the last few remaining repositories of the extraordinary in our modern world, the other space of extraordinary being the actual sensation of falling in love.  But we now know that this experience of the miraculous is accompanied by loss.  Whether it is as obvious as the loss of sleep and one’s previous freedom or a more mournful type of loss where some women sing a song of sadness at this time.  But, does this sadness detract from or amplify the sense of the miracle?  Is the arrival of the child any less miraculous because a mother might have a sad song to sing in her post-natal period?  Can a miracle still ‘count’ if it is intermingled with terror or angst?

It has taken some time and some work of healing to make peace with the idea that the initial joy of my Chanukah baby was cut short by a terrifying, uninvited guest of anxiety and post-natal depression.  But when I look back, I am filled with an awe that speaks to an experience of the miraculous. We light candles over an eight-day period of Chanukah. Each night we light a candle, gradually increasing our light. But what we don’t see is the space between the candles. The space between the candles is punctuated by a light that is less bright, perhaps some kind of shadow.  If we focus on the light only and wish all the darkness away, we might end up disappointed. For life generally is not about light in a totality, it is about beautiful light interspersed with slices of shadow.  When I think of miracles in this way, the notion of Nachmanides’ every-day miracles including the miracles of childbirth,  are rendered accessible and real, even in our post-modern era. Chanukah is the reminder of the beauty of light in our lives always, interspersed with loss, sorrow and imperfection. The dance between the light and the shadows makes up the full Chanukiyah. 

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