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From Darkness to Light: Entering Holy Time

Divinity is best characterized as a wondrous light that shines with the mystery of all that was, all that is and all that shall ever be. The eternal. The timeless.
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"Though I dwell in darkness, the Lord is my light."

These words of the ancient prophet Micah (7:8) have been cited through the ages by religious thinkers from both the Jewish and the Christian traditions. The verse expresses the deep suffering and alienation that so pervades human life; all too often this world seems a place of despair and darkness: both from the perspective of our individual struggles with pain, illness and loss, as well as from the cry that we cannot but hear from the poor, the hungry and the disenfranchised.

But even as the prophet recognizes the truth of that pain, he also speaks of the hope that fills many religious souls, the comfort and redemption of faith. That is not in any way to dismiss the profound sense of meaninglessness and desperation that consumes the one who suffers. But life is also filled with sublime wonder -- the stunning beauty and the ordinary mystery that lead us to the borders of poetry. There is a majesty to our world that touches the ineffable, the indescribable. As spiritual masters have interpreted the verse from Micah, God is the radiance that dwells at the soul of existence, the rock upon which the weary might rest. Even as we travel in the dark places, the spark of an inner divine flame may sustain us with a measure of hope.

Divinity as Light is an idea that has been developed extensively in the history of religion and in the history of mysticism in particular. Mystics of many different religions (including Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism) have described God as a radiant Being, a force that shines and illuminates all of reality. The Zohar, the masterpiece of medieval Kabbalah, whose very name means "radiance," spoke about the divine realm as awash with running rivers of light -- often playing upon the similar sounding Aramaic words, nehara (river) and nehora (light). God, for the kabbalists, was understood to be composed of 10 luminous dimensions of energy, forces of emanation and portals to mystical contemplation. According to these masters, Divinity is best characterized as a wondrous light that shines with the mystery of all that was, all that is and all that shall ever be. The eternal. The timeless. It is for this reason that spiritual practitioners have described the peak experiences of meditation and contemplation as states of enlightenment and illumination; through our human encounter with the Source of light we ourselves are left aglow, our minds and perception elevated to new and heightened states of awareness.

For the Jewish mystics, and particularly the Hasidic mystics of 19th century Eastern Europe, this transformed state of consciousness, this sense of closeness to God, is the ultimate goal of holy time. Our passage from the ordinary landscape of the workweek into the sacred zone of the Sabbath is a process of opening our eyes to spiritual sight. On the seventh day, the Hasidic masters claim, we gaze upon the world and upon our lives with a vision refreshed -- we are able to see the earth as a new creation, our individual journeys as filled with possibility.

The crossing from the labor of the week to the rest of the Sabbath is also considered to symbolize a movement from the mundane of this world to the redemptive perfection of the world to come. The ancient sages of the Talmud taught that the seventh day is a semblance of that world to come -- on the Sabbath we are able to reach beyond the bounds of our ordinary physical existence to the place that is all spirit and soul. The lighting of the Sabbath candles at dusk on Friday, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, marks this quest for the divine flame in our innermost hearts. According to one late 19th century Polish mystic (adapting an older Jewish idea), that candle flame evokes the first light that was created at the dawn of time -- a radiance that was hidden away deep within the veils of reality for the wise to rediscover in each generation. It is found in the words and chambers of Scripture; it is found in the natural world and in the self-examined soul.

"Though I dwell in darkness, the Lord is my light." As we pass from the burdens and materiality of the workweek into the spiritual realm of the Sabbath, we enter into the mystery of divine presence -- the light that restores us to our center and anchor in a life of meaning and purpose.

In just a few weeks it will be Hanukah, the Jewish festival of lights and miracles. It is a holiday that celebrates the miraculous survival of the Jewish people in the face of ancient persecution, and the miraculous way in which one day's worth of oil endured to light the rededicated Menorah (candelabrum) in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem for eight days. But the candles we light at this darkest time of the year also remind us of our yearning to reconnect with the Source that is all light, the great and unified flame of Being that ignites unique sparks of spiritual awareness in each of us.

The Sefat Emet ("The Language of Truth"; composed by the late 19th century Hasidic mystic, Rabbi Yehudah Leib of Ger) teaches that the will and intention of a person is powerful enough "to awaken the holiness of God in every place." We hold the power to turn moments of the mundane into opportunities for the sacred. Divinity is the mystery that is everywhere present; we only need to awaken our consciousness from a state of spiritual slumber. The Sefat Emet cites a fascinating ancient midrash about Jacob's dream of the ladder between earth and heaven and the altar to God that he built upon waking, in which Jacob's yearning to serve God at the site of the future Temple in Jerusalem was so strong at that moment -- he being still at a great distance from that location -- that Mount Moriah itself (the supposed place of the future Temple, and the mountain upon which Abraham was instructed to sacrifice Isaac) was uprooted by divine miracle and brought to Jacob where he was!

The Sefat Emet teaches that through such intense yearning and will we too are able to awaken light even from within the deepest darkness. Like Jacob, we are able to draw Divinity into our lives even when we feel that we stand at an unbridgeable distance from God. This, I submit, is the true miracle of Hanukah that we seek: to awaken light and redemption from within our darkest places, both as individuals and as a community. To break through the barriers and the hardships that hold us back. To realize that the yearning of our heart and the force of our intention can bring about the miracle of transformation. The will to survive and the commitment to draw close to God hold the power to move mountains. "Though I dwell in darkness, the Lord is my light." So may it be in our time.