The Baal Shem Tov, or Besht —  the founder of Chasidism — 
met the soul of the Messiah during an ascent to heaven. 
The Besht asked him, "When will the Master come?" 
The Messiah answered, "When your wellsprings break forth to the outside!" 
(from a letter written by the Besht to his brother-in-law about one of his soul ascents) 


 

Banu Choshekh: Do we really want to be singing "Begone black!"?
Download alternative Ba'nu Choshekh (two versions) here!

Not too many years ago, I first heard the song Ba'nu Choshekh at the Chanukah concert of my son's Jewish day school. This was a school with a fair number of Jews of color. I was pretty schocked.

The lyrics of Ba'nu Choshekh promulgate an idea of light vs. dark that has had horrifying racist repercussions throughout history. Here's a translation of the song:

We have come to banish darkness, in our hands light and fire. Each one of us is a little light, but all of us (together) are a mighty light. Get away darkness, begone black, flee before the light!

The words “Be gone black/Hal’ah sh’chor” really struck me as the wrong thing to be singing, even though I know that no one who loves the song today or in the past – certainly not the Yemenite composer, Sara Levi-Tanai – would have had racist intentions. But structural racism mostly isn't based on intentions. There's more to criticize in the song, as I discovered next spring, when I got a telescope and started doing amateur astronomy. The next season, I got involved in a campaign to stop the installation of LED street lights that could drown out our view of the stars. That gave me three reasons to reject the imagery of Ba'nu Choshekh.

ice menorah shamash Fundamentally, the idea that somehow we are trying to defeat the dark on Chanukah is foolish. Darkness is essential to the warp and weave of this world, as much as light. In fact, the halakhah agrees: Chanukah candles are not kosher if their flames come together "like a torch" – they must be separated by darkness in order to fulfill the mitzvah. That is not an idle or meaningless rule. As I wrote, "No one sits in front of the menorah thinking, 'I can’t wait for these candles to grow so bright that there’s no more darkness.' Darkness is the condition that makes the candles beautiful and sweet." We are planting seeds of light with the small flames of our lit wicks, seeds that grow in the soil of darkness.

People have written a few new versions of Ba'nu Choshekh in response to these problems. I like my full rewrite best, but I'll share three versions here. The second one, from Rabbi Jill Hammer, is especially useful because it only changes four words. I have also laid out the first two, four to a sheet, in PDF format, so you can easily download, print, and share them. (They also match up back-to-back, if you want to teach both.)

1) First, here's the one I wrote, where the song becomes a response to solstice and a reflection about the place of human fire within the natural world:

Hebrew transliteration:

  Translation:   Hebrew:
Banu choshekh l'kadesh   We come to sanctify the dark,   בָּאנוּ חָשֵׁךְ לְקַדֵּשׁ
Kodem shemesh titchadesh   Before the sun renews its light   קוֹדֶם שֶׁמֶשׁ תִּתְחַדֵּשׁ
B’yadeinu or v’ner   In our hands, may light and flame   בְּיָדֵינוּ אוֹר וְנֵר
Leil kasalmah l’fa’er

  Bejewel the tapestry of night.    לֵיל כַּשַּׂלְמָה לְפָאֵר
Nish’talenu gar’in esh   We will plant the fire’s seed   נִשְׁתֳּלֶנּוּ גַּרְעִין אֵשׁ
Bad hachoshekh m’lapef   Held enwrapped in darkness’ weave   בַּד הַחוֹשֶׁךְ מְלַפֵּף
Gar’inim shel esh va-or   Seeds of fire and of light   גַּרְעִינִים שֶׁל אֵשׁ וָאוֹר
Bohakim mitokh hash’chor   Radiant within the night!   בּוֹהֲקִים מִתּוֹךְ הַשְׁחוֹר

2) The next one, from Rabbi Jill Hammer with a tweak from me, transforms the meaning with only slight changes to the wording:

Banu choshekh l’kadesh
B’yadeinu or va’esh
Kol echad hu or katan
V’khulanu or eitan
  We’ve come to sanctify the dark,
in our hands a little spark
Each of us a tiny light,
and together we’re so bright.
  באנו חושך לְקַדֵּש
בידינו אור ואש
כל אחד הוא אור קטן
וכולנו אור איתן

Kumah choshekh aleh sh'chor   Come up darkness, rise up night,   קוּמָה חוֹשֶׁךְ עֲלֵה שְחוֹר
Kumah, likrat ha-or! (x2)   Come up, to greet the light!   קוּמָה לִקְרַאת הָאוֹר

3) The third version comes from the website Nashimahut. Note: this is an all-Hebrew site, and the translation (by me) is literal rather than singable:

Banu choshekh l'kabeil   We come to receive darkness,   באנו חושך לקבל
b'tokheinu or vatsel   within us light and shadow,   בתוכנו אור וצל
Kol achat hi or gadol   each one is a great light   כל אחת היא אור גדול
mit'rachev l'khol yakhol   expanding to become all-powerful.    מתרחב לכל יכול
n'chabek et hash'chor   Let us embrace the black,   נחבק את השחור
na'atof oto ba'or   we will enfold it in light,   נעטוף אותו באור
ki mitokh hakhi hash'chor    for within the very blackness   כי מתוך הכי שחור
mitgaleh gar'in ha'or   seeds of light are revealed!   מתגלה גרעין האור

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