A Sabbath Message: Finding Light in Darkness – Preparing for Holiday Season

“The proper response, as Hanukkah teaches, is not to curse the darkness, but to light a candle.” – Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg

Sabbath this week brings the start of the month of December, a month usually filled with joyous holiday celebrations and gatherings, as we are again reminded that this year will be very different. Although we have faced it before during this pandemic, this month is a stark reminder that things are not as they usually are. I was somewhat amused by a recent NPR story I heard on the radio last week which said that Jews and Muslims had become the “experts” in pivoting for holiday observance during COVID, as we have already celebrated our holy days during the spring and fall. In fact, in the story, they interviewed representatives from both traditions to get our recommendations on how we did it so successfully this year. And so, in that spirit, although I have mentioned this in various ways here before, I thought with the December holidays upon us, I would review some survival tips again, with some additions –  perhaps for the last time!

The first candle of Hanukkah is lit next Thursday evening, but no matter what tradition you follow or which holiday you observe, preparing beforehand can put you in the right mindset. As you consider the kind of holiday experience you want to have, think about the following:

  • Think of this year as an opportunity for something new: Remember that your mind is a powerful ally in how you get through this time – it is truly all in how you perceive this situation. Instead of seeing what can’t be, choose to see what CAN be. Talk to friends and family about creating new and unique traditions this year – do some research. Jot down some ideas and add them to an “Idea Jar” which you can use to make decisions about how you ultimately choose to celebrate.
  • Remember that physical distancing is NOT social distancing: The two terms are NOT the same! In fact, while we physically can’t be together, we need to be in touch with each other more than ever. Connecting whether over Zoom, FaceTime, or the phone is crucial – a lifeline for ourselves and others. Connect with loved ones near and far as much as possible, perhaps those who you might not otherwise have been in touch with. Again, an opportunity! Make plans now for how you will virtually connect to others – reach out for help, too.

What about on the holidays themselves? How can you help them feel extra special this year?

  • Create a mood, decorate your space, and dress up: For those of us who have done this, it really works to dress the part! You might look for some nice music to set the tone, too. And if your custom includes worship, there are some great on-line options – both in and out of town! Look for our Hanukkah Community Celebration on December 17th!
  • Include friends and family as much as possible on the day: You may wish to include others in your life – both near and far – in the process of cooking or eating on the day over Zoom or FaceTime. If you live alone, this is an especially good way to help you feel connected to your loved ones. Share special stories and foods with your virtual group!

Finally, throughout this season, which is often stressful under even the best of circumstances, it is good to continue to keep important things in mind and take care of yourself and your loved ones, as we round the home stretch of this long pandemic. Consider these points:

  • Remember to create structure to your day: Whether or not you are working from home, some rhythm to your day is important to keep you feeling purposeful. Give yourself realistic goals, but be sure to add in relaxation and pleasurable experiences to look forward to – a great meal to prepare, an excellent movie to watch, or a book to read!
  • Get creative to lift your spirits: We already know this is a tough time, so we need to be active in deciding what will lift us up – and those around us. Call on the things you already love for comfort – or cultivate something new. While opera continues to be a big favorite in my house, this is the first time I have ever had a vegetable garden, which gives me a feeling of accomplishment and helps my InstaCart!
  • Stay aware of your physical and mental health needs: It is so important to pay attention to these priorities – and we know they are intrinsically linked to each other. If you can, stay physically active, especially if you were before. There are great yoga and exercise classes offered online. (We have a terrific Mindful Meditation program!) Walking is great, if you can do so safely. Protect yourself from too much negativity – stay informed, but limit how much news you watch and listen to – and then turn it off!
  • Reach out to others: Research shows that when life is at its darkest, we feel better, more useful and most empowered when we reach out to help others. There are plenty of ways to help without leaving your home. Something as simple as phone calls to friends who may not have anyone to check on them can be very meaningful – a lifeline, actually. If it seems that a friend needs a call, it is very likely that they do. Remember that something which feels small to you, may be huge to the one who receives it.

With a fervent wish that we all find peace and wellbeing on this Sabbath – and hope during this holiday season,

Ruth Steinberg, LCSW, MAJCS
Director, Jewish Family Service


Image caption: Light in the Darkness… On a beach walk last weekend, I captured this moment as the light of the waning sun broke through the darkness of the oncoming evening, rippling on the water.