It was December 25, 2016 – Christmas Day and Chanukkah. Volunteers gathered with local seniors to sing songs, serve holiday foods and feed some who couldn’t feed themselves. Like the jelly-filled doughnuts we rolled from chair to chair on a distribution cart, the scene was simple and sweet – a chance to give back during the holidays.
“Jacob” sat alone at the back of the room.
I’m embarrassed that I hadn’t seen Jacob until another volunteer focused me on him. When I did see him, Jacob reminded me of Winnie the Pooh‘s “Eeyore” – withdrawn, shriveled, barely noticed, barely noticeable. He seemed veiled in a sadness so dark that, like a black hole, it seemed to cloak itself and him with it.
Jacob seemed hardly there – but he was very much there. When I sat with him, Jacob eloquently shared that he’d survived Auschwitz: his left forearm bore the concentration camp’s blue-black tattoo of his prisoner number. Jacob was quick to volunteer his brutal story – slavery, selections and inhumanity almost defying belief. Jacob probably had told his story countless times in his 71 years since Auschwitz, but tears of grief still ran down his cheeks. Some pain has no expiration date.
Even more than Jacob’s story, what most struck me was the quiet after he finished. A charged and pregnant silence enveloped us, as if incubating something more. Suddenly a veil lifted. Jacob’s face glowed. He laughed as he began sharing memories of his long-dead parents from pre-Holocaust childhood. We shared a tune from the world he once knew, and joyful tears flowed freely. We both beamed. Jacob’s body was fragile, but his essence powered up before me: I felt its light and strength in my core.
Mystics teach that the primordial light of creation remains even in the darkest dark. The routine of dulled human awareness, and especially painful experience, falls like a dark veil over the light we might call resilience, meaning, inspiration, spirituality or holiness. At one time or another, we all sense how real this veiling darkness can be. It can’t be pretended away any more than we can pretend a book has no cover or a theater stage has no curtain.
Just as we open a cover to read a book or lift a curtain to see the stage, so too we can help lift this veil over each other’s inner light. But this metaphor is imperfect: people aren’t inanimate books or stage plays. Each person’s agency, dignity and inner life is its own world that we may hardly know, however well we think we know someone. While we can’t pretend away the veiling darkness, we also can’t forcibly lift it or will it away.
Rather, our attentive presence, inviting and without judgment, can call this dark veil what it is – totally real, and only a partial reality. Our capacity to listen, with patience and courage, to give darkness its full due, exposing our tender hearts to its reach, can directly touch another’s heart in way that no other power can achieve. No longer alone, the heart of darkness opens: the veil can lift and the light within can shine.
So it was for Jacob, just one of maybe 100,000 Holocaust survivors alive today, and his lesson is for everyone. Darkness is real, and light waits within. Often we must touch the darkness – and allow others to touch our own – so the veil can lift and light can shine through.
Jacob glowed with that light amidst the darkest dark. It’s a gift the whole world needs – and a gift that waits for each of us to give and receive.
Dedicated to “Jacob” and congregants at Temple Beth El of City Island: New York City, New York (website).
David Evan Markus is senior builder for Bayit, co-rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York), rabbinics faculty at the Academy for Jewish Religion – New York, and spiritual direction faculty and past Board co-chair for ALEPH. By day he presides as judicial referee in New York Supreme Court, 9th Judicial District, as North America’s only pulpit rabbi also to hold full-time public office.