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May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Yerachmiel Milstein

Making light out of a very dark night.

I guess I am the quintessential New Yorker. When the lights went out earlier this blistering hot day -- and taking with it every struggling air conditioner in my fair city -- I hoped aloud that my wife was not stuck in the subway again like she was on September 11th (she was). Without missing a beat, I plugged an old low-tech phone into the wall jack (it worked fine) and after ascertaining my wife's safe arrival and locating all my immediate family, I continued making all of my work calls.

Aside from being uncomfortably warm, I was all but unfazed by the largest electrical blackout in American history and conducting business as usual.

The first thing to dent my battle-tested and scarred New York state of mind was my remarkable drive home from the office. The one-mile journey took double the usual 10 minutes and despite the relatively heavy traffic and complete absence of signals, there was no pandemonium -- not a single blaring horn and an amazing abundance of courtesy, an otherwise extremely rare commodity in the New York of just three years ago.

The second thing that jarred my hard-boiled Brooklyn brain, was the tremendous number of volunteers manning the most dangerous intersections in the sweltering heat to direct traffic, a disproportionate number of whom were adorned with Hassidic side locks and long tzitzit, the ritual fringes worn by many devoutly observant Jews where I live. In fact, the overwhelmed New York Police Department passed along a tremendous number of calls for help to Shomrim (literally "Watchmen"), a Hassidic dominated volunteer community patrol group which won accolades from the highest echelons of government for their selfless service to New York citizenry in the aftermath of 9/11.

As dusk came, life in Brooklyn, New York became eerily surreal.

As dusk came, life in Brooklyn, New York became eerily surreal. Drivers rediscovered their horns, using them in short toots as a preventive measure to warn the occasional careless pedestrian. But other than that, the night was strangely quiet. The country-like chirps and clicks of crickets -- and other mysterious creatures we thought to be alien to New York -- dominated the night and created a heavenly philharmonic concert to rival anything ever presented in Central Park.

And, it was dark. Very, very dark. So dark that if you didn't remember precisely where the one overgrown shrub was on your block, it seemed to go out of its way to make your acquaintance.

The darkness was such that when you looked down you could see absolutely nothing. But when you looked up at the sky, it bedazzled and amazed more than the best multi-million dollar light show on the dome of New York's celebrated Hayden Planetarium. Like diamonds set in the majestic crown of a medieval monarch, the brilliant stars over the unlit streets of the most urban of American cities hypnotically commanded the gaze to the point of utter distraction. And the thankfully near full moon was magically radiant in its slight yellowness, divinely suspended in nothingness amid the sequined backdrop of stars, planets and galaxies.

"The heavens declare the glory of God," King David wrote in Psalms, as he no doubt looked up thousands of year ago from the "blacked out" hills of Jerusalem. Gazing upward on my way to synagogue for my evening prayers that night, I knew just what he meant. It's kind of funny how we seek spirituality in all the most esoteric places and yet if we could just stop the noise and light pollution of our own industrious concoction, God speaks to us from the heavens in eloquent declaration.

My absorbing epiphany came to a crashing halt when I spied a building filled with the warm glow -- of all things -- electric light! And it was coming from my modest shul (synagogue), affectionately called Landau's after the rabbinic family that founded it and continues to lead the congregation. Accompanied by the throaty chugging of a generator, the sound of prayer wafted out the open windows

As I entered the shul that darkest of nights, I took a seat next to a friend I had never met, who had set a lit battery-powered lantern on the table next to his prayer book. Suddenly, the generator outside sputtered and the overhead lights went dark. Our prayers didn't miss a beat, but instead intensified in the glow of all the lanterns and flashlights. And just as suddenly the generator roared back to life and the lights blinked on again after which prayer resumed its more regular din. This happened over and over again during the next 5 minutes and each time the lights seemed to be responding to the intensity of our entreaties. Eventually the generator and the lights stayed on for good.

I couldn't help but thinking of another passage penned by the great Psalmist, playing out before my very eyes: "When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You have set in place. What is frail man that You should remember him, and the son of mortal man that you should be mindful of him? Yet, You have made him but slightly less than the angels, and crowned him with soul and splendor. You give him dominion over Your handiwork, everything You placed under his feet."

Just at the point where we might really start to get impressed with ourselves, God powerfully reminds us Who is truly in charge.

God creates astonishing natural beauty and the equally astounding opportunities to create loving kindness. As humans we are charged with the angelic task of managing the amazing place we call the world through a system of prayer and mitzvoth (Torah commandments). Where there is darkness, destitution and pain, we are meant to bring Godly light, blessing and comfort.

But every once in a while we neglect God's handiwork, we get caught up with our own genius and the latest tech toys and ignore the all important responsibilities that go along with dominion. Just at the point where we might really start to get impressed with ourselves, God powerfully reminds us Who is truly in charge. In the blink of an eye, the entire grid of seemingly indestructible human power and light vanishes into the dark night.

Ultimately we must learn that for all the mega-wattage of our power plants we can only generate true light when we connect spiritually to the true Source of all power.

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