Are There Any Lights On?
These words were written in the dead of a dark night in New York, waiting for some electricity to allow them to be sent over the power lines that connect us to cyberspace
As the “power of the sun weakened” on the 16th of Av, all lights went out for 50 million people in North Eastern United States.
When it becomes dark outside we have before us a true study in human nature.
Inevitably we will be hearing about the financial toll of this blackout, investigations – city, state and federal, independent and no so independent – will drag on for months as to the source of the power failure, fingers will be pointed, wise politicians will exploit it for their own glory. No doubt we will hear about “new” measures being taken to modernize the power grid. We will be seeing graphs and maps, analysts and pundits of all size and shape, dissecting the electrical failure and comparing it to the blackouts of ’65 and ’77. Surely parallels will be drawn between 9/11 and 8/14 – our vulnerability, our overconfidence in our invincibility, our need to create new defense systems.
All that and more will dominate headlines for the next weeks. I therefore would like to focus on an entirely different angle – the human, psycho-spiritual drama behind all these events; not so on the symptoms and their remedies, but the roots and the commentary they offer on the human condition
Interesting to see what people do when they cannot rely on their expected source of energy. We have become so dependent on electricity that people everywhere around me literally had no idea what to suddenly do after the power was gone.
No TV. No Internet. No clubs. No subways. No lights. Only thing left are the things we do naturally – read, sing, study, pray (play a crossword puzzle? No that doesn’t fit…).
I must confess that though my life orbits so much around books and writing, I was left utterly naked walking the streets, observing, smiling at the ironies, sitting on the Parkway bench, concerned for those stuck somewhere, watching the headlights pierce through the black streets, studying the thousands streaming down the streets – completely amazed at the fact that I had no inking what I should or would be doing as long as the electrical appliances and equipment were down. That’s how dependent we have become on this external energy.
The Talmud tells us that beginning from the 15th of Av (August 13th this year) the “power of the sun” begins to weaken, as the days get shorter and the nights longer. This is also the reason why this was called the “day of breaking the axe.” Because on this day they ceased using the axe to cut down trees for wood in the Temple. The wood needed to be as dry as possible. Once the sun began setting earlier the wood no longer would be at its driest, hence they would then stop cutting the wood.
Yet, the Talmud continues, these longer nights provide us the opportunity to study more Torah, because, as the sages put it, “Night was created for nothing else but study.” The solitude and silence of night is conducive for mental concentration.
This year’s 16th of Av blackout teaches us that this night power is much more than just about the physical nature of night.
The sun represents aggressive, brute power. The sun is a mammoth source of energy, no object can come close to the sun without being consumed by its light and heat. The sun is a colossal oven that warms and illuminates the entire solar system.
The moon conversely is soft, receiving light. Humans are able to come close to the moon, even walk on it. The moon is not spewing nuclear forces and exploding with bursting spurts of energy. The moon silently reflects. With no light of its own it reflects the light of the sun.
We have been well trained to be “solar” people. To take charge, to be pushy and aggressive – to be “go getters,” because, as we’re programmed, no one else will take care of you if you don’t take care of yourself.
What we know less of is the art of “lunar” energy. The gentle, sensitive power of listening, reflecting, absorbing.
We know how to give, how to command, how to bark. But do we know how to receive, how to listen, how to reflect?
And therein lies the mystique of night – the mystique and romance of the moon. You don’t see two people in love staring at the sun. You see them gaze at the moon…
In it’s reflective repose the haunting moon casts a glow that is especially conducive to introspection – to listening to the song of your own soul.
People in New York (and I am sure in the other areas affected by the power failure) are speaking about the eerie silence around us, about the surreal feeling of the city with no lights. I wonder which is more eerie: the sound of air conditioners and subways or the sound of our souls?
We have become so dependent on electricity that we don’t know how to access our own inner electricity, our own inner juice.
Take away electricity, gas – all external sources of fuel, and what are we left with?
But know this: When some lights go out, others come on.
This year’s 8/14-Av 16 blackout sure blacked things out; it certainly “broke the axe” of the Northeast – the hub of the commercial world. It taught us how utterly unreliable are our common sources of survival and comfort. How we are so dependent on physical light and energy, and so awkward with our own inner light and energy.
I know, I know that some of you will say I am overreacting: a blackout hasn’t happened for over 25 years. A small price to pay for the convenience of non-stop electricity. That is all true, but my point is not to knock the benefits of modern life; just to point out the vulnerabilities we have acquired as a result of our overdependence on Con Ed for “energy” and inevitable underdependence we have developed for our own inner energy.
Interestingly, it also taught us some thing that we were not aware of (at least I wasn’t): How we are all connected by these power grids. And as one fails, it ripples into another and another. If that’s the case in a power failure, how much more so in a power surge. We have the ability to empower each other, one flame lighting another and yet another. forever and ever.
Truth be told, the blackout also brought out the darkest part of human nature. When our energy crutches are pulled from under us, some of our lurking demons emerge in the night. After being hidden for so long, even our deeper lunar light may not have a comfortable resting place when the lights go out…
But that too is the challenge of night: To extract the inner juice from within us. To some that may come easier than others, especially if you have trained and exercised your inner electricity.
Some people in the New York streets were charging double for drinking water and others were giving it out for free. Some were breaking windows and looting, while others were crawling into subway tunnels to help others escape. Some were yelling and screaming, others were playing music in the streets.
When your inner juice emerges you sing and dance even in the dark night. You illuminate the blackest streets with glowing light and intimate warmth.
I know, because just a night before the great blackout I had the good fortune to personally experience natural energy. We held a drumming workshop in downtown Manhattan that surprised me and everyone that participated in its ability to electrify our spirits. The primal sounds – thump, thump – of a group drumming together has this uncanny effect of bringing out deep primal forces of our soul.
The thumping sounds resonated in the entire room filling it with a rising tide of energy, reaching a crescendo, coming back down only to rise again.
They call fuel “natural energy” because it comes from beneath the ground. It may be “natural” for the earth, but once it gets into humans hands it becomes a man-made commodity subject to all human failings. Our true “natural” energy is the one that we generate from within.
Your own inner electricity. You own internal juice.
Sometimes we need our external lights to go out for our inner lights to shine.
It’s now 2:10 PM on Friday. Power has come back to my neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Eerie sounds begins to echo around us…
Will it drown out the sound of Shabbat? We shall see…