Excerpted from The Light That Unites by Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider
We are accustomed to the secular notion that a new day begins with sunrise.
However, in Jewish law and practice, the new day begins at night.
Why? Why does Shabbat begin at nightfall? Why do we begin the Passover Seder at night? Why do we begin to celebrate each new day of Chanukah with the candle lighting as the sun sets?
Our source for this practice appears in the beginning of the Torah: “And there was evening and there was morning, one day” (Genesis 1:5). This verse in the Torah says that nightfall precedes the morning, hence the new day begins at night. The twenty-four-hour period that commences with the sun setting is the Jewish definition of one full day.
What is the deeper reason that the Jewish day consists first of night, followed by day?
This unique Jewish definition of a day reflects our hopeful and optimistic approach. The night is only temporary. Darkness precedes light. Darkness is only a stage that leads us to sunrise and the brightness of day. This stands in contrast to the way the rest of the world defines a day.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that the Greeks, who believed in many gods rather than one loving God, gave the world the concept of tragedy. They posited: we strive, we struggle…at times we might achieve greatness, but life has no ultimate purpose. The universe neither knows nor cares that we are here. In Greek dramas, man is typically brought to ruin, and his life ends in sorrow.
Ancient Israel, on the other hand, gave the world the idea of hope. We are here because God created us in love, and through love we discover the meaning and purpose of life.
Tragic cultures eventually disintegrate and die. Lacking any sense of ultimate meaning, they lose the moral beliefs and the resulting norms and rituals on which continuity depends. They sacrifice true happiness for fleeting enjoyment, refusing to defer pleasure for the sake of critical tasks in the here and now. They thereby forfeit the future for the present.
Inevitably, they lose the passion and energy that brought them greatness in the first place. This was the story of ancient Greece.
By way of contrast, the Jewish sentiment of hope and renewal is captured in a beautiful vignette in the Talmud (Berachot 1:1). Two sages – Rabbi Chiya and Rabbi Shimon – were walking side by side. They were walking in the valley of Arbel, in northern Israel. Together they saw the dawn, whose light began to slowly burst forth. Rabbi Chiya turned to his dear friend and observed: “So will be the redemption of Israel. First it comes little by little and then becomes greater and greater…until it bursts forth with great brightness.”
The moments before the dawn are typically the darkest time of the night. As the dawn begins to break, there are moments when the darkness and the light seem to mingle with one another. Soon the light breaks through.
It often requires a long process for the light to shine brightly – a process that can feel unending. But the Jewish people remain ever hopeful. We know that the sun must inevitably rise. A new day, carrying the promise of renewal and the potential for joy and goodness, will come.
At nightfall when darkness surrounds us, Jews gather around the menorah. The candles bringing light to the darkness are symbols of a deep and abiding faith in the potential for a better day to come and the hope for the final redemption.
A parable: There was once a king who was growing older in years. He wished to choose one of his three sons to take over his kingdom. He came up with the following idea.
There was a small shack in the middle of a field. “Whoever can fill the shack to capacity,” the king exclaimed, “will take over my throne.”
The oldest child went first. He filled it with rocks and stones of all shapes and sizes. When there was no room left, he filled the cracks and crevices with small pebbles.
It was then the second son’s turn. He carried bags of feathers, dumping the feathers into the shack. Before long the shack was filled with feathers from top to bottom.
Finally, the youngest son had his opportunity. In the evening the third son walked into the shack. Surprisingly, he was empty- handed. He reached into his pocket and took out a match and a candle. He lit the candle and the room was filled to capacity with light. The king smiled. “You, my child, will take over my throne.”
The truly wise son understood how to fill a vacuum; where there is emptiness, we are to fill that space with light.