Getting too dark to see
I was on a ferry in Connecticut 25 years ago when a man jumped overboard and committed suicide. It was my first time on a ferry, a trip which went from happy to harrowing in an awful instant. My heart ached for that stranger whose name I did not know.
That tragic episode made me deeply question how cruel and sad a world we must live in that some people feel life is not worth living. As an optimistic newlywed then, I remember entertaining the fleeting query, “Could that ever be me?” Since then, unfortunately, I’ve known other people, some closer to me than others, who have tragically ended their lives, leaving me shocked each time. Every incident catapulted me into deep introspection: How does life become so dark that one can no longer see any light? At which point does death start looking more attractive than life?
This article, however, is not about suicide, but rather about the very dark zone, the gravitational black hole, that so many people find themselves in today. And although they don’t contemplate death (I pray), life has become a depressing, meaningless chore where one day blends into the next without distinction. Unhappy marriages, lonely singles, family strife, economic strain, humiliating circumstances, aching voids, health issues and Corona are among the many strands which weave the noose around the neck of our optimism.
Interestingly, it is at this time of year when the nights are longest and darkness seems to prevail that we read about the story of Joseph, who found himself in the darkness of a snake-filled pit into which his brother’s had thrown him. Then, after being sold as a slave and exiled to Egypt, he was thrown into the darkness of Pharaoh’s dungeon. What truly did he have to live for? One day he was living a comfortable life as his father’s beloved favorite son, and the next day, he was in bondage.
Joseph had grown up on the inspiration of his dreams, which saw him ruling over his brothers. But he saw no “happily-ever-after” ending for himself from the depths of the pit. His brothers stripped him not only of his coat of many colors, but also of his pride, his innocence, and the years he could have lived peacefully by his father’s side.
In some measure, the brothers killed everything that made his life meaningful, except his faith and the light of G-d that burned inside him. Fortunately, faith knows no shackles nor taskmasters nor pits or self- pity—it sees only light. The Torah teaches us something very interesting about Joseph’s attitude throughout his great suffering. The dungeon to which he was condemned was called Beit Hasohar, the “house of light.” Even in the depths of a dark dungeon, Joseph maintained his faith in God. He remained optimistic and hopeful as he created his own “light.” It was a house of light because he himself shone. In fact, he is called a “jumping man.” The Midrash tells us that throughout his captivity, he behaved joyously, singing and dancing.
We must learn to emulate Joseph as we go through our own trials and tribulations. We need to keep our faith shining with laser-like intensity until it cuts right through the “dungeon” wall. It is a sin to succumb to despair and it is idol worship to believe that life is worth living only when we are riding high. Throughout time the rabbis have taught there is no blessing where there is sadness and on some level, today, science proves it. “The mere act of smiling can reduce blood pressure, lower stress hormones, boost mood and generate the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 bars of chocolate...”
In the story of Chanukah, the golden Temple menorah was stolen by the Syrian-Greeks, and there was only enough pure olive oil to last one day. The Maccabees didn’t lament the darkness of the circumstance. Instead, they made a metal menorah to replace the golden one. And the one day’s worth of oil miraculously lasted eight days.
We too have much more potential inside ourselves than we realize. We can keep going and shine brightly. If only we would stoke our souls and refine our faith like pure olive oil, the miraculous lights of life would be with us 365 days a year.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that just as it takes a single candle to dispel much darkness, so we must never give up hope or faith, nor feel that the ‘night’ is insurmountable.
Having faith, however, is not a mere a slogan to say while trying to aggressively and craftily manipulate circumstances, thus creating further darkness. If a person really had faith in G-d, he wouldn’t work on the Sabbath because he would have faith that G-d would provide for him. If one had faith, he would not be afraid t to give charity because he would be confident of G-d’s generosity towards him. If one had faith, he would do everything so differently, because a person of faith will “let go and let G-d.” In our worldly affairs, we believe that one hand washes the other. Yet when it comes to G-d, we are ready to collect with both hands and serve with neither.
All the above is beautiful and inspiring but ultimately useless even if we do have faith in Hashem, but give Him no reason to have faith in us. Joseph did not survive Egypt simply because he had faith; that would just make him a positive thinker. He survived and triumphed because G-d had reason to have faith in him. Despite all the perverse influences around him, he behaved like a mensch and maintained his unique identity.
The most beautiful woman in the world made daily advances at him and he did not succumb because he saw his father’s face and the moral teachings of his faith guided his conscience and his deeds.
By passing the tests, we create light, just as friction creates a spark. By keeping the commandments, we become powerful eternal flames. “When the lamp [man] and flame [Torah] unite, they produce a light which fills the house--the world.” (Rabbi Elie Munk). We are not merely candles in the wind or glow-in-the-dark wands that quickly burn out, leaving us terrified and inconsolable in the dark lonely nights. If we see the light, we can be the light!
When a young man once inquired of the Lubavitcher Rebbe what his favorite prayer was, the Rebbe replied, “Modeh Ani.” This 12-word prayer stood out as powerful to him because it affirms that G-d has faith in us, which means all things are possible. And just as the menorah light is “reborn” every night in a crescendo of illumination, a Jew too must strive every day with the outlook that yesterday wasn’t good enough. Today we must shine brighter.