One light at a time

Why my darkest Chanukah ever shines the brightest

Paula Levin

Erev Chanukah, December 25th 2005, I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. As the Parklane’s first Xmas baby, he was somewhat of a celebrity, and several newspapers came to take pictures of baby Levin for their annual feel-good story. I too was feeling good, ecstatic with my perfect, tiny, 2,8kg baby boy and thrilled with the fact that we got to publicise the miracle of Chanukah as my husband told Die Beeld and the Star’s reporters that we were in fact celebrating a completely different holiday. That night, lighting the first candle in the ward, my heart was bursting with joy, pride, completeness, and excitement. The flame on the menorah danced inside my heart and I was filled with gratitude. That’s what made the second night all the more perplexing as I took in the same scene. This time, the two flames were smaller somehow, outside of me, further out of reach. With each subsequent night, I felt like I was watching the scene from behind ever thicker walls of glass – unable to connect, unable to feel that same lightness of being I could remember but not recreate.

What followed was an eternity of suffering. In actuality, it was three months of postnatal depression. I say an eternity because time stretched out and collapsed in on itself as days and nights merged into one timeless, sleepless, endless limbo. Not sleepless because of a wakeful newborn, but because of terrifying, racing thoughts that never stopped. I was trapped inside my own mind, the volume button turned up, with every thought audible and jarring, and no escape from the running commentary that I had made a terrible mistake, that I was broken beyond repair, that there was only one way out. Although I’ve spoken extensively on the subject of PND, co-authored a book about this awful illness and 15 years have passed, it’s still painful to remember and unsettling to describe what it felt like when the lights went out. So, would you believe me if I said I am grateful for that intense darkness? Not that I would ever, ever choose to go through it if given the option to go back in time – but yes, grateful! How did I get here?

Family support, medication, and therapy, probably in that order, but the truth is that after those three months of hell were over and I felt like myself again, when my brain chemistry was balanced and I was no longer depressed and anxious, I often still felt miserable. I was angry, I felt cheated out of the joy of early motherhood, I was a victim of a terrible injustice – perpetrated by none other than G-d, who had let me down spectacularly. I could not look at baby photos, at photos of the bris and the pidyon haben, momentous occasions I had happily anticipated for nine months of pregnancy but which had passed me by, all the action taking place just out of reach, beyond that glass wall. I felt I had survived a life-threatening ordeal, but not thanks to G-d, who had ignored my desperate pleas for sleep, for relief, for recovery.

That was strike one against G-d, strike two was far worse. My best friend got sick and entered a comatose state just as I was starting to recover. And though again I stormed the heavens, begging, pleading for a miracle, again the answer was a resounding, deafening silence. She passed away two weeks later. It was so difficult to pray to a G-d who, I reasoned, being beyond time, had already made up His mind, whose actions I believed I should pre-accept, just to avoid the pain when things didn’t work out. I prayed half-heartedly, I could not be hopeful. Although I was happy, often my thinking was depressed, but this time, medication, therapy, and family support could not help. Dr Edith Eger, a 94-year-old Auschwitz survivor and therapist says, “The biggest concentration camp is in your own mind, and the key is in your pocket.” I was no longer experiencing physical darkness, this was spiritual darkness – a slow burning, low grade, post-traumatic failure of faith and trust.

I define faith as the feeling that everything that has happened in the past was for a purpose, for the good and though our minds cannot comprehend G-d’s calculations – let’s face it – mine could barely comprehend high school algebra – He is good and just. There is an infinitely bigger picture that we can’t see, that explains each particular dislocated, misshapen puzzle piece. And one day, all will be revealed in its wholesome, awesome perfection. Trust is the hopeful innocence that in the future, things will be good, that our prayers will be answered, not because we necessarily have the merits to deserve it, but because G-d can do anything, He is unlimited, and after all, we are His beloved children and He wants nothing more than to say yes – simply because we asked Him and we trust Him. I had lost my faith and my trust.

In fact, when my second son was born and everything went smoothly, I felt even more hard done by. Why had I not had this experience the first time round? It was not fair. I could not access the faith that things had happened for a reason, that there had been a purpose to my suffering. And maybe worse, I was still living with the anxiety that at any moment things could fall apart again, whether inside my own brain, or through catastrophic loss that might lie just around the corner, G-d forbid. I needed to be vigilant and in control, alert to every danger or disaster, because trust was unwarranted.

Chanukah and the mental health connection

To use the metaphor of the Chanukah story, the temple of my mind had been ransacked and violated, my inner sanctuary contaminated by darkness – both by the PND and its spiritual aftermath. How could I ever restore its holiness and purity, its innocent trust and faith? The answer lies in how we light the Chanukah candles.

In the Jewish world today, we follow the opinion of the Talmudic sage Hillel and celebrate Chanukah by lighting an additional candle each night until, on the eighth night, the menorah is ablaze with all eight candles. But another great sage, Shammai, held that the best way to perform the mitzvah was to start with all eight candles and decrease one candle each night until on the final night of Chanukah we are left with a solitary candle. Hillel and Shammai’s logic is complex and layered and the subject of a piece of gemora as well as countless commentaries from the perspectives of Jewish law, mysticism, and philosophy, but Rabbi YY Jacobson explains the disagreement as being about our approach to our inner darkness.

He says that Shammai’s strategy was to banish the darkness with a massive attack of light. Starting with all eight candles on the first night, we fight the darkness with every ounce of our resources. That way, as the battle becomes easier and the darkness recedes, we can reduce our efforts decrementally until all that is required is one little light. We do not follow Shammai’s strategy, but because “these and those are the words of the living G-d”, they still offer wisdom and insight into the nature of the battle. In fact, one of the gemora’s praises of the academy of Hillel, and why we generally follow their rulings is that they always first cited Shammai’s thinking before offering their own position. Rabbi Jacobson goes on to explain Hillel’s strategy. Hillel says that Shammai’s approach requires strength we might not have, and certainly not at the outset. Yes, there is darkness, and often we can’t eliminate it – but maybe we don’t even have to. Maybe all we need to do is light one small candle, do one small act of goodness and holiness. And the next day, do a little more and then a little more. The darkness is still there, we still have our doubts, fears, depressions, and anxieties, we have despair and darkness, laziness, selfishness, and cynicism. But we need not mount a ferocious attack on the toxicity. We need not analyse where it comes from or what dark and selfish motives might lie behind our mitzvos.

We may lack the strength to eradicate the darkness, but you know what, we do not need it. We can all do one good thing now, just as one candle dispels a lot of darkness. And tomorrow, we can add one little thing to our efforts. Rabbi Jacobson explains that these two approaches represent two schools of psychology – the first, epitomised by Freud and the school of psychoanalysis, is to unpack, explore, and analyse the darkness until we find a solution that will get rid of it altogether. The second, epitomised by Skinner, is that “happiness is felt in dos and don’ts” – in what we do and what we don’t do – in behaviour, in action. It is these small, everyday choices, our tiny attempts to connect to Hashem and do acts of goodness and kindness, that inspire G-d Himself! “Ki ner Hashem, nishmat adam – the soul of man is G-d’s candle.” G-d blesses these efforts with outsize results, with eternal impact, relevance, and resonance.

Hillel says we must increase in holiness and not decrease. We focus on the person we want to be, the life we want to live, the relationship we want to have with Hashem, and we do what we can – no more and no less. We fix our eyes on the light, knowing full well the darkness is still there. It’s part of being human, frail, vulnerable, and imperfect. We don’t have all the answers, there is so much mystery. We can accept the darkness, tolerate it, and even welcome it. We don’t fight it, but neither do we have to feed it.

Sometimes, it’s not the darkness but the expectation that there should not be any darkness that causes our suffering. For some reason, I thought life should be easy, that motherhood would be effortless. I felt entitled to a picture-perfect story. I guess I thought that G-d owed me that. And so often I come up against this brick wall belief that this or that shouldn’t be happening – resisting reality with anger or indignation. That’s when I try to soften this belief for one moment by breathing deeply and realising I am here, I am alive, what a gift! What a delightful, surprising thing, to be a conscious living, breathing being, with so many beautiful and abundant blessings in front of me. How astonishing.

Our tradition tells us that Shammai’s rulings will be followed in the time of Moshiach. Then, we will have the strength to vanquish the darkness completely. But we’re not there yet. For right now, we simply strike a match, kindle our own flame, and choose the light one day, one moment at a time.

Every Chanukah, after lighting the candles with the family, as everyone scatters to do their own thing, I take out my tehillim, pull up a chair, and sit in front of the candles. We light in our doorway, where, like on sukkot, or in the mikva, we can be surrounded by holiness – the mezuza on the left, the menorah on the right. I sit there watching the candles burn down, fully present in their golden glow, overflowing with gratitude that I am not separated from them, from my life, by that cold, invisible glass. The truth is that only because of the blackness of that difficult time in my life, can I see the contrast of every day since, making it pop with poignancy.

Because of that extreme darkness, every single day I stop and marvel at the infinite spectrum of colour that’s always there and realise life is a gift. Every Chanukah, even as I pray with all my heart, and often with tears for the needs of my husband, my children, my siblings and parents, for all those struggling, even as I am aware of the darkness inside and in so many situations, I focus my eyes and my mind on the light, the good, and the gratitude. Every day of Chanukah and indeed all year round, the match is always in my hands.

8 ways to fuel your flames

Do 1 thing today, repeat and increase tomorrow

  1. Take a few minutes to breathe deeply and slowly
  2. Put on an uplifting song
  3. Go for a brisk walk, run, or some other form of exercise that feels manageable
  4. Every day take a moment for self-compassion: don’t ask what’s wrong with me, ask how can I help?
  5. Take a moment to count your blessings – you can even build this into your daily prayers
  6. Develop a hopeful and faithful mindset by learning something from the Torah
  7. Do a mitzvah – each one forges a bond between us and Hashem, building a relationship that nourishes and sustains us.
  8. Sit and chat face-to-face with a close friend or family

8 Chanukah segulot – beneficial practices

  1. Chanukah comes from the word chinuch, which makes it an extra special time for educating our children about our rich religion. Teach them how to light the menorah, why we light it, and share an idea of faith with them.
  2. Spend time looking at the candles every night and saturating your eyes with their holiness.
  3. Rav Nachman of Breslov says to stay seated by the candles and to pray next to them for half-an-hour as a segula for your prayers to be answered quickly.
  4. The Chasam Sofer said that tears cried in front of the candles help prayers to be answered.
  5. Give children money (Chanukah gelt) each night of Chanukah, double the amount on the 5th night as the light starts to conquer the darkness. Teach them about giving to those less fortunate.
  6. Recite psalms 90 and 91 next to the candles seven times each.
  7. Erev Shabbos Chanukah is an auspicious time to pray to get married or for someone to find their match.
  8. The last night of Chanukah is an auspicious time to pray for fertility for oneself or another.

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