“When God began to create heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water – God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”
Most of us doubtlessly recognize these as the opening words of the Bible. But many of us mistake this passage as the beginning of a historical account of the creation of the world and the dawn of man. Still others of us have been led to believe that this passage is a quaint but mistaken ancient attempt at a scientific explanation of the origin of our cosmos.
Rather, through this story, the Bible is telling us why we’re here, not how we got here. According to Genesis, God created the world to transform chaos into order, formlessness into beauty, darkness into light. But instead of completing the task alone, God created human beings in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:26) and made us responsible for God’s creation (1:28). We’re here to help God finish the work of illuminating the darkness, of bringing justice, goodness, beauty, and peace to a world that in many ways is still dark, unformed, and void.
It is no coincidence that Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, falls during the darkest time of year, when the days are shortest and the nights are longest. To quote Woody Harrelson’s character on True Detective, this season can symbolize the feeling many of us may have when looking at the night sky, “that the dark has a lot more territory.” If God created the world to dispel the darkness, then it appears God is failing. We look at our world and see stubborn and prevalent war, terrorism, slavery, abuse, violence, disease, hunger, injustice, and corruption. Many of us struggle in our personal lives with all manner of pain, brokenness, anxiety, failure, regret, and loss.
That’s why, in the depth of winter, in the dark of night, our tradition instructs us to light one candle. Bring a little bit more light into your home. Place that light in your windowsill, to increase a little bit of light in the world. It may not illuminate the night, but it will at least make it a little brighter. As the masters of Hasidic Judaism taught, “a little light drives away a lot of darkness.”
In seeing what one little light can accomplish, perhaps we will be reminded that no deed is insignificant, that our acts of kindness or compassion, however small, will help advance a more just, loving, and peaceful world. Matthew McConaughey’s response to Harrelson’s cynicism on True Detective is right on: “Once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.”
Every new bit of light we bring into the world is a victory: a step toward God’s vision of better lives and a more perfect world. The tradition’s hope is that each symbolic act of illumination on Hanukkah will encourage us to recommit to our godly responsibility to bring more light into our dark world. If a little light can drive away a lot of darkness, then our efforts to illuminate the dark are never in vain.