In the Northwest, it's common to hear complaints at this time of year about SAD. That's not only the emotion spurred by the lack of winter sunlight, but an actual psychological malady, Seasonal Affective Disorder, where depression interferes with sleep, performance and energy.
Those who work indoors in Seattle drive to their 8 am jobs in the dark and emerge at 5 to the same nighttime. No wonder sun-simulators are so popular. I've got a light-box on my desk.
My search for bright light was happily rewarded this year when my husband and I were able to take a working-vacation to Hawaii, where the winter sunrise is at 7 and night comes at 6:30. Those extra 2 1/2 hours of sun make a huge difference. So does aqua surf and temperatures around the clock between 70 and 80 degrees.
But seeking light has a deeper meaning tonight as the 8-day Jewish holiday of Chanuka begins. Just as the winter equinox closes in, we begin an expansive celebration of light, specifically the menorah, which was a 7-flame oil candelabra that illuminated the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
Yes, the "chanukiah," the candle holder for the holiday, has eight branches, one for each day of the holiday, plus a separate holder for the "helper" or shamus, that lights the others. But the eight days of the holiday recall the miraculous amount of time that a small pot of undefiled oil kept the menorah going before new oil could arrive, once the Temple was re-dedicated, after banishing Greek gods and culture. The Temple having its special continuous light was so crucial that the menorah's ongoing glow is central to the holiday--and is the ultimate symbol of God's presence. It is because of this that the menorah is the emblem of the State of Israel.
But God's "enlightenment" is something we seek throughout the year. Jews conclude our most central thrice-daily prayer by asking God to "bless us, our Father, all of us as one, with the light of your countenance, for with the light of your countenance you gave us, our God, the Torah of life, and a love of kindness, righteousness, blessing, compassion, life and peace."
That always strikes me--God gave us everything good that's non-material with the light of His countenance. Not with his words, though that's how He created the world. Not with his thinking, or waving some figurative arm, or sending some angel. Not even by the look on His countenance--no, there's something special about light, in Hebrew, "ohr."
In the first Holy Temple, the seven-light, six-branched gold menorah was in a shape God dictated to Moses in Exodus 25: 31-40, with almond and knob decorations, and the branches turned toward the middle. The windows of the Temple, it's said, were backward, in that the spiritual light came from within and radiated outward, as opposed to normal windows, which let outdoor sunshine in.
So it is tonight, when we ignite the first of our Chanuka lights, allowing the brightness to emanate from within our homes to overcome the SAD of these darkest days. It's considered a gift that God tilted the earth to create seasons, to let us move from the dark months into the light, beginning with Chanuka, when, using "chinuch," education (the root of the word "Chanuka"), we improve ourselves as each subsequent day brings greater and greater daylight.
I'm searching for bright light here in Hawaii, and we'll attend a public menorah-lighting with others who understand that the holiday represents the triumph of insight over ignorance, and independent dedication to true principles over the ubiquitous and convenient messages of our feel-good culture.
Today the weather in paradise is blustery and rainy, so I'll appreciate all the more the clear sunshine when it reappears, and bask in the brilliance of this message of illumination--both the kind that can give me a tan and the kind that lights up a winter's night and a seeking soul.