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Light and the time of year

Eternal lights (top l-r): Chesed Shel Emes,
Shaarey Zedek, Rosh Pina 1893
Bottom (l-r): Chavurat Tefilah,
Temple Shalom, Simkin Centre

In November, we left Daylight Saving time behind to return to Standard time. We had already been experiencing increasing darkness each day, which had started with the Autumn Equinox in late September, and that is continuing until the Winter Solstice in late December, shortly after Chanukah and just before Christmas.

The mantra guiding this bi-annual switch is ‘fall back/spring forward’. Either Saturday night October 31 or the next morning November 1, we moved the clocks both digital and analog back one hour. No problem with the phones or the computer, though, because they did it themselves by virtue of the intelligence of their circuits. Sunday, however, was confusing. Our tummies rumbled an hour early, and the dog puzzled about the delay in being fed. For a few days after the time change, many reported feeling a bit discombobulated.
The Winter Solstice signifies that we will have reached the shortest day of the year, the day with the least light and the most darkness. We then creep towards the Vernal Equinox near the end of March, when light of day and dark of night are equal. After that, the days gradually lengthen until the Summer Solstice in June, that special day. It is the lightest day of the year, and remains light well into the nighttime hours. But then, inexorably, it starts all over again, moving from light towards darkness. The equinoxes and solstices happen in the natural world, guided by the movement of the earth around the sun. We learn about them in school, we mark them on calendars, and the light associated with them is reflected in culture, art, and in aspects of religion.

In Jewish life, ‘light’ is a grand and welcome theme, particularly at this dark time of year at Chanukah. It is especially so in this pandemic year, and at a time when we are emerging from a socially threatening darkness. Candles, the Chanukiah, stories of the Maccabees, the light that glistens from the pan of frying latkes. Many communities have celebrations involving light. At Diwali in mid-November, Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs celebrate a Festival of Lights, which has its origins in a range of ideas and events; and light fills the household. At Christmas, neighbours decorate their homes and their trees with lights or candles; how beautiful the masses of white and of cobalt blue lights are!
Light, lamps, and candles are important in Jewish life and thought. In the synagogue, the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light, is a continuously burning lamp suspended from the ceiling above the ark. In Jewish thought, it symbolizes the divine presence in our midst and in the world, and is a tangible reminder of divine power in the creation of the world. The mythological cosmology of Kabbala tells of God’s contracting himself into himself, of withdrawing his own essence from the void thereby creating space in which creation could begin. God then made ten vessels into which to pour light. Three held, but unable to contain the power of that divine light, seven shattered. Tikun Olam is the process of repairing the world by gathering and raising those sparks of light flung out with the shattering. The menorah is another powerful symbol of illumination and of things positive. It ushers in the Sabbath and other holidays. The braided havdalah candle bids farewell to the Sabbath, and illuminates the darkness left by its absence. The yahrzeit candle flickers to remind us of our departed, and to act as a reminder of the light they cast in life. “Yehi or, vayehi or; Let there be light, and there was light”.

Susan Turner is a Winnipeg artist and curator. She designed and, with Stan Carbone, co-curated the 2016 synagogues exhibit at the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada in which the 2015 photos accompanying this article appeared.

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