Finding the positive in negative space

  • AidelKazilsky
Hey, do you know what negative space is? I’ve thrown out this question to people around me this week, and have received some interesting answers. “It’s when you find yourself in a polluted space where things are negative and uncomfortable.” “It’s a place which feels negative, physically – kind of like squishy and uncomfortable.” “It’s a frame of mind, emotionally or mentally, when things just look negative.” Well, who can argue – they are all correct descriptions.

But there’s another definition of negative space formulated by artists. For them, negative space is the space around and between the subject of an image. Negative space may be most evident when the space around a subject, not the subject itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape, and such space occasionally is used to artistic effect as the “real” subject of an image.

As an example, you are reading words in the newspaper right now. What do you see? Of course, black letters printed on a white background. But what if you stopped, and instead of focusing on the black print, you tried to read the white space found between the letters. It’s hard to change our focus. Train yourself long enough, though, and you will see things that are written between the lines.

As the SA Jewish Report goes to print, the vast majority of people are winding down the year. Summer is upon us, and the long-awaited downtime we have been looking forward to, is on our doorstep. Whether you are travelling far or near, or choosing to stay at home, there is an anticipation of long, lazy days, relaxation, and unwinding. For us Jewish South Africans, our vacations are always sprinkled with the celebration of Chanukah. The outdoor public menorahs, Chanukah parties with latkes and doughnuts, and the spinning of the dreidel colour our vacation time.

What’s interesting about the holiday of Chanukah is that it’s not mentioned in the Torah at all. That means that it’s not a commandment we received directly from G-d, as we did with the observance of the three pilgrim festivals: Pesach, Shavuot, or Sukkot. It’s not like the observance of Shabbat, directly mentioned in the Torah. Chanukah is a rabbinic holiday, instituted during the Second Temple period by the rabbis to commemorate the small vial of oil the Maccabim found after they won the war and wanted to rededicate the temple. You all know the story.

We celebrate another rabbinic holiday, known as Purim. Again, it was instituted by rabbis, this time to remember the evil decree of the murderous Haman, how he wanted to eradicate the Jews, and how we survived.

Now here’s a question: what separates Chanukah from all other yamim tovim (Jewish festivals), including Purim? Hint – look for negative space. In fact, the answer is negative space. Let me explain. Every other holiday was either commanded by G-d, in black and white in the Torah, or a recordal of the events of the holiday are found in black and white, as in the megillah of Purim that describes all the events that led to the miraculous salvation of the Jews.

But when it comes to Chanukah, we have nothing in black and white. We may have descriptions of what happened during that time recorded in the Talmud or by eyewitnesses, but we have no direct text that commands us to celebrate the festival, nor do we have an official, authoritative text that forms part of the holiday.

In fact, to take it a step further. Chanukah is obscurely “hinted” at in the Torah. After the Torah enumerates the commandments to keep the festivals, the very next piece of text describes the lighting of the menorah in the Temple. The wording reads, “Command the children of Israel, that they bring unto you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually … On the pure Menorah, he shall order the lamps, before G-d continually. (Leviticus 24). Catch the negative space? Change of one lamp to many lamps … a hint of one small vial of oil, enough for one lamp, that we add to each night of Chanukah until we have eight lamps?

Let’s add one more piece of context here. Why celebrate Chanukah at all? Chanukah takes place while the Jews are under foreign rule and subjugation. A small band of Jews get together and revolt against their oppressors. Whilst the Maccabim are victorious, and restore the Temple into their own hands, their victory is short lived (about 30 years) and things again go downhill until we have the final destruction of the Temple, and the dispersion into exile – a banishment of people and place, an exile that we still find ourselves in to this very day. So, what’s the meaning behind all of this?

It’s only in the negative space that we can find the answer. In fact, it’s the negative space itself that teaches us the lesson.

It’s not about what you see and what you get. Not everything is spelt out in black and white. Chanukah teaches us that in between the lines of life’s trials and tribulations, one can find light. We are in exile, in mind and soul, even sometimes trapped in body. This world is a dark place, and apparent good is rare. Our job is to search beyond the obvious, and kindle a light of positivity. That one step will give impetus to kindle yet another light, and then another, until we have brightened the world. Sometimes it may look like we take two steps forward, and then three back. But rest assured, there is meaning behind the seeming darkness. In the negative spaces of our lives is a G-d written script which seeks out our welfare and well-being, a hand that holds us, guides us, and directs us.

In the northern hemisphere, Chanukah comes around in a time of darkness, cold, and snow. In our part of the world, there is light, warmth, and sun. Don’t be fooled in either place. Look beyond your circumstances, read between the lines, and find your purpose and direction. Light your lamp, your soul, and then go out and light the lamps of others. There’s a reason why you were created. Go out and find it.

Wishing you an illuminating Chanukah (and a well-deserved rest).

  • Rebbetzin Aidel Kazilsky is a radio and television host and an inspirational speaker who teaches the wisdom of Torah and applies it to contemporary times.


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