• seena elbaum

To Kindle a Light To Kindle a Soul

My mother stopped lighting Shabbos candles when I was 10 yrs old. Up until then, every Friday night my two sisters and I stood alongside her, watched her cover her head with a silk, flowy, floral

scarf, she drew the light in, and recited the blessing. This was always followed by mommy bending over and giving each of us akiss on top of the head. Seeds were planted, watered, and now, the tree has

matured and the message and meaning of this event and memory feel eternal.


When I was 10 years old my family experienced a devastating tragedy – my 13 year old sister was killed in a camp bus crash. No more candle lighting on Friday night. It was an immeasurably difficult time. My mother’s blistering pain was so deep and incomprehensible. The fall out from this was shattering and my family as I knew it was no longer. Joy was replaced with sadness, laughter with tears, forgiveness with anger, unity with isolation, conversation with silence, and light

with darkness. Everything felt hard and heavy.


Fast forward and In 2013 after my father died, my mother was still living in NY. Alone, scared and broken. I knew she was safe because of stellar caregiving around the clock, yet I could not find any rest at night knowing she was crying herself to sleep until her tears ran out. I was making several trips a week to and from NY and life was feeling unmanageable. My supportive, kind and very gracious husband, suggested that my mother move in to our home. He was so convincing and certain that this was the right thing to do, and I wanted to believe him yet I had my doubts. Old family dynamics and our personal histories between me and Mom had me questioning what to do. With abundant trust, I left my thinking brain and moved in to my doing brain. Two months later, she was all

moved in.


The adjustments were enormous. For all of us. My mother and I were still grieving, though it was too painful for her to talk about it. Mom and I did many things together and my goal was to show her love and care. I’d cook her favorite foods, take her on long walks, bring her sweet treats, make silly jokes, tell her how pretty she looked, take her for manicures and hair cuts, and sit with her and hold her hand. This approach helped me feel better, and while I knew she was grateful, her energy remained very heavy and alas, the darkness prevailed. After 60 years of marriage, the loss was truly crushing. I desperately wanted something to lift the darkness and replace that space with light. Her energy was spilling over in to my home creating challenges for my husband and son, and my experience was that I had more emotional pieces to navigate, and therefore, a greater opportunity to grow in to a better version of myself.


Every Friday, when I set out my candlesticks, I also set out two for my mother even though it had been decades since she kindled the Shabbos light. Every Friday night, I would bring my mother down to the kitchen before candlighting and find a special sweetness to say, “Mommy, these candles are for you. Would you like to light”? I suspected her answer would be just what it was the week before, and for some reason that I can best explain as an expression of my will, determination and faith that things can change, I kept believing that one Friday night she would surprise me with an affirmative reply. Maybe this would be the space where the light would rekindle and replace the darkness. As much as I wanted to hear a different answer, I knew I could not make her change her answer. She had to come to that on her own. For many many months, her answer remained, “no, not tonight”. Watching my mother’s sadness gave me a chance to feel sad as well, and to practice awareness of gratitude that it did not disempower me, rather, to the contrary, strengthened my resolve to persevere and pursue the light.


In an unspoken way, this weekly exchange she and I had, felt like a unique partnership. Though I didn’t see any observable indication that she would say, “Yes, Im going to light candles this Shabbos, I sense that we were moving in the that direction. As long as I didn’t stop my simple efforts and loving acceptance of the answer I did not want to hear, I felt there was hope. Low and behold, after several months, week after week, she completely surprised me and before I even asked her, she said, “Seena, bring those candles over to me”. Initially, I acted undaunted, though the truth is, my heart was pumping with adrenaline and filled my body with excitement and my soul with joy. I wondered, what changed? Why tonight? I asked my Mother and all she said, “Why not”? For me, it felt herculean. From that moment, she continued to light candles until the Shabbos before she took her last breath. In some hard to explain way, in this moment of change, I arrived at the thought that my mother came to live with us so that she could find the light from her darkness.


Years ago, a teacher introduced me to the Jewish idea that “growth happens in the darkness”. We were studying lessons Rabbi Avigdor Miller's, Career of Happiness. One of them resonates here. When life is easy and things happen with little effort through the smooth sailing. our spiritual muscles are not being tested because there are no winds of struggle. This is not so however when we feel torn with fear, emptiness and uncertainty, from an experience of pain and sadness after loss. In our heaviness, we might lack the interest, motivation or clarity to pursue what we want, and we might even feel sad about this lacking. Tzvi Freedman said it well, “if you want to provide human beings real satisfaction, it's not going to served at the beach chairs by the swimming pool”. We have to work that much harder to achieve what we desire, putting our spiritual muscles to work to make things happen that seem impossible. This feels like what was happening between my mother and I, and though it was in many ways replete with uncomfortable soreness, look at the light and satisfaction that prevailed!


The Jewish people are blessed with a manual for living. The Torah might be ancient in years, but the lessons hidden throughout our nation’s creation, our family’s history and triumphs are abundant, and provide eternal encouragement to find faith and feel trust in our lives today. It is our timeless code for living a meaningful life, for unearthing the willingness to persevere while we embrace our struggles and move their through the darkness believeing we will reach the light. We’re in this together my friends, near and far. Our Jewish homes, community and nation are an intricate puzzle. Each and

every piece has a different shape, place and purpose, and needs each and every other piece to be unified and whole. It feels so important that each one of us takes a closer look at our personal

stories and embarks on a journey to discover the meaningful lessons that are woven throughout the narratives and memories, and find the personal relationship with ourselves, our spirituality,

our Jewish identity and practice, our Torah, and our homeland. Am Echad. We are one.

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Seena Elbaum, ACSW,  MSW, LSW, Certified Doula, Certified Yoga Teacher
(215) 808-6852 | seenabeth36@gmail.com

Bala Cynwyd, PA