What are we left with when that last of the nine lights on our dining room window ledge flickers out?
My life was transformed when I was offered admission to what seemed to be the greatest college in the world, well before U.S. News & World Report started saying year after year that, indeed, it was just that. For me it appeared to be not just the greatest college, but the greatest place. Indeed they sing there that it is “the best old place of all” — for it is so transformative to so many. Certainly to me it was more of a generalized place than a mere educational institution. I could not really imagine what it meant for a university to be a great college, because no one in my immediate family had ever graduated from college. Although we lived about ten miles from this one, it may as well have been ten light years.
And light did flood the world, it seemed, the day my parents brought me to the campus for the first day of Freshman Week. It was a bright day at the end of August, and perhaps it was the harsh sunlight that made my father, an orphan raised by his immigrant grandmother on the Lower East Side, cry as we walked around the country-club like setting where I would spend the next four years. I was not so emotional. I used blue sticky-gum to pin my Israeli flag to the plaster walls of the gothic dormitory, unpacked my bike and my six pairs of jeans and few other physical possessions, and got ready for the ride that would eventually lead to my present, very different, place in life.
But as summer faded and autumn settled on central New Jersey, the light, a little at a time, began to ebb.
This first semester did not go well. On the first day of school, bicycling across campus to the math building, I fell into a puddle of mud. I may as well have stayed there; I was soon on track to failing calculus even after a year of it in high school, and wisely bailed out during the add/drop period. Other classes were puttering along decently enough, with grades reflecting the considerably tougher standards and competition I was now encountering. But having no oral tradition of college, and having already been shot as from a slingshot across the universe far from the only world I knew, I was aimless. Most of the extracurricular things I probably should have done, given my talents and strengths such as they seem in retrospect, I did not do. All the things I wanted to do, the things I had been a high school star in, I resolutely failed at that fall. My high school girlfriend, off at another campus, abandoned me, too, in the process of what seemed at the time of abandoning herself in her new “place.”
And as September yielded to October, the sun, putting distance between itself and my place, grew dimmer. And I grew lonely. In my dormitory, I seemed to be entirely alone as November enveloped the campus. Everyone was at a … sport. I was not an athlete; but this time of year I should have been rehearsing a play or any number of other things that I was not doing, that they would not let me do, in this place. I looked out the drafty leaded glass dormitory window to the freezing quad below, illuminated by garish green lamps and a few other lit windows, and waited until it was respectably late enough to trudge of to the commons dining room to eat alone with hundreds of my classmates. After dinner, at least, the other guys would come back to the dorm, and I would have society, and life, and light.
But through those long, dark afternoons of late fall and early winter, loneliness — a feeling I had never experienced for even a moment in my life — overtook me. The onset of winter, and the draining of light from the world with the advent of December, has haunted me ever since. Now this is not about me. I won’t save for the end the fact that each and every failure that I experienced at the best old place of all that fall was, over the course of the next four years, reversed in spades. Indeed, all the things I wanted and could not grasp then, I had in embarrassing abundance by graduation, and thank God for that, because a baal teshuva who leaves behind what passes for “everything” for a life of Torah and mitzvos makes a much better “BT blog” contributor than the (mainly mythical) “loser at life” who “can’t hack it” in the “real world.” No, I had it all; yet every approach of the solstice still chilled me, and my soul. The emotional hurt of that fall still does not let me go, but this is not about me, right?
Zos chanukah. I always found it odd that people think Chanuka was fried up as a Christmas alternative in order to “brighten up your winter solstice.” What kind of present is that? When that last candle goes out on the last day of Chanuka, yes, any astronomer can tell you that you have more or less turned the corner along with the earth in its orbit, and that the days are imperceptibly beginning to wax long again. But in fact, if the descent into darkness chills your soul as it does some people’s, at the midway point all you have is a promise of another six weeks of the dark misery, and all that much colder, as well, for your money. And yet they say that “zos chanukah” — this last day of Chanukah — encapsulates the whole of the holiday before it. How is this?
We know that eight days — the days of Chanukah, the days before the bris — represent the transcendence of the supernatural over the natural. But while the eight days of the bris are essentially a waiting period, the eight days of Chanuka are each of them a day of yomtov, an improvement over the previous day, a brighter day than what preceded it, another day of miraculousness. To start them any later than the time of ultimate darkness over the world would be to ask too much of us in fighting despair. But to continue them beyond eight — that is not a favor. How will we ever glitter and irridesce by ourselves if we do not bring that light inside, and use it to kindle something of our own?
Some people hang colored strings of lights, keeping them up seemingly forever into the winter, hoping, it seems, to just outlast the cold night, to drive it away by luminous force. Artificial light never warms, however. It does not teach. It does not reach. The pure light of the menorah, however, at least gives us hope that we can weather the harshness of mortal life.
I have not assimilated all the lessons of the lights. Every year December still brings its dread to me. A Jew should never feel alone; he should not, but being human, and maybe wanting too much in this world, he may yet do so anyway. But every year I hope that, at least when I look out the window into the dark of night, the lights — and the clear glow they leave after they are gone — reflect, refract and reach into me just enough to keep the the light inside burning till spring.