By Rabbi Ari Perl
As Thanksgiving gives way to December each year, I am reminded of two profound rabbinic teachings about biblical Adam’s encounter with darkness and light. According to the Talmud (Avodah Zara 8b), the steady increase in darkness that accompanied Adam’s first experience with winter led to deep despair and a pervasive sense of impending doom. When the winter solstice passed and daylight began to steadily increase, hope was restored. The Talmud suggests that Adam’s celebration formed the basis for the many festivals celebrated by different religions at the end of December each year.
A second rabbinic teaching takes this metaphor one step further. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 3:6) teaches that as darkness fell on their first full day of existence, Adam & Eve were gripped by trepidation and a sense that the darkness would soon envelop them completely. Sensing their anxiety and wishing to soothe their fears, God gives them a gift of flint and shows them how to ward off the darkness by making fire.
The first teaching accurately describes the despair we feel when the forces of nature conspire against us and it feels like we’re slipping deeper and deeper into the darkness. It offers the hope and reassurance that the darkness will recede and light will be restored. But the second teaching is even more profound. It’s not enough to wait around for the darkness to lift: God has given us a sublime gift, namely, the ability to ward off darkness by proactively creating our own light.
Judaism teaches that, having been created in God’s image, we are meant to imitate His ways. And that means recognizing the threat of looming darkness and bringing light to fend it off. In Jewish tradition, each week we greet the first darkness of the new week (Saturday night) by kindling a fire (the Havdalah candle) and each year we combat the intrusive darkness of mid-December with the lighting of Hannukah candles. We don’t wait for darkness to give way to light; rather, we embrace our sacred duty to chase away darkness by proactively lighting the way for ourselves and others.
Those experiencing organ failure, like my friend Alan recently did, often feel like they are descending into an enveloping darkness, sometimes slowly, sometimes suddenly. More sickness, more isolation, more fear, more grieving for the family milestones that will be missed. Those, like my friend Andrea, who find themselves mourning the sudden and tragic loss of a loved one often feel the same way, like they’re being sucked into a black hole with no way out.
For Alan, Andrea and thousands of others facing similar circumstances of despair, organ donation is the light that fights off the darkness threatening to envelope them. For Alan, it was the selfless act of a grieving family that turned his impending darkness into the light of a life restored. For Andrea it was her own family’s noble choice to donate her brother’s organs that fought back the darkness of tragedy and loss with the light of purpose and legacy.
2020 has been a year filled with far too much darkness. At the same time, we’ve also seen darkness and despair turned back by heroes determined to bring light. As we battle the December darkness by kindling our Hanukkah candles and sharing gifts to celebrate the miracle of light, let’s chase away darkness all year round by bringing the light of organ donation and giving the gift of life.
Rabbi Ari Perl is the Vice President of Multicultural Engagement at LiveOnNY. To learn more about the Jewish perspective on organ donation, please click here.