“Darkness is your candle,” wrote the great Sufi poet Rumi. “You must have shadow and light source both.”  

Jewish tradition understands darkness as an inherent and necessary aspect of life; our spiritual task is to extract sparks of holy light concealed within the shadows of life. In this season of encroaching darkness, this practice takes on special import.

According to tradition, the sacred light of the first day of Creation extended to the end of the universe; the Talmud questions how this could be so, since the heavenly luminaries were not created until day four.  Rabbi Elazar answers that the light created on day one

was not that of the sun, but a different kind of light, through which humans could observe from one end of the world to the other. But when the Holy One of Blessing looked upon the generation of the Flood and the generation of the Dispersion and saw that their ways were corrupt and that they might misuse this light for evil, God arose and concealed it from them, as it is stated: “And from the wicked their light is withheld”(Job 38:15).

This light is concealed from human beings when we fall from consciousness and act “sinfully” or unwisely.  After Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree, God granted them only an additional 36 hours of this light (from Friday midday through the first Shabbat), after which fell to them and future human beings to reveal the now concealed light through our own initiative. 

We are charged with the task of perceiving and testifying to the continued existence of the or haganuz, the “hidden light,” and revealing it through sacred study and righteous deeds. The or haganuz is said to be revealed only to 36 tzadikim, 36 anonymous righteous people (the lamed-vavnikim) in each generation. This number corresponds as well to the total of 36 lights we kindle on a single hanukiah over the eight nights of Chanukah. 

Because we do not know the identities of the 36 individuals by whose righteousness the earth is sustained, each of us must act as if we may be a lamed-vavnik.  By bringing mindful intention to each of our words and actions, we can reveal the or haganuz, the light of sacred awareness which, while often concealed from view, is nevertheless present in each and every moment and experience.