The world is created out of light, the kabbalists tell us.
In the beginning, according to the creation story of the sixteenth-century Lurianic mystics of Safed, there was only God. God occupied all space, such that there was no room for anything else. Because God is perfectly good, God wanted to share the divine light, so God contracted in order to make room for the world. According to the divine plan, God’s supernal light would stream through pipes from God into the world, and a perfect world would be created. Alas, a cosmic catastrophe occurred. The pipes were not strong enough to contain the divine light, and they shattered, with the sparks of the light becoming hidden within shards that hide them.
And that is the world we live in—the world created by the unintentional destruction of the pipes conveying the divine light. Thus, we live in a world filled with hidden light, and it is up to us to liberate the divine sparks from the shells that hide them, by repairing the world, by righting injustice, by treating everyone and everything with loving compassion, by discerning the divine light at the core of every dark shell.
Why is light such a ubiquitous symbol in the winter holidays of so many religious traditions? On a simple level, we light Hanukah and Christmas and Kwanzaa lights against the darkness. Lighting a candle at the winter solstice is both a primal and a practical way of responding to the paucity of daylight. When ritualized, it is also an affirmation of faith that after the darkness, comes the dawn, that the length of days will not keep shrinking, that at the darkest moment of the solar calendar, the days begin to lengthen. Lighting a candle in the darkness is an act of faith.
For the Jewish mystics, it is that and more. Lighting a candle is a rededication to the purpose of human existence—to liberate the divine sparks, the divine presence, from the shells in which they are hidden. God did not (could not?) create a perfect world. There was no way that the splendor and luminosity of the divine light could be contained undimmed within a material world.
What we are left with is our human responsibility to partner with God. The divine sparks are there, waiting to be revealed. We can become peace builders, listening empathically to the narratives of those with whom we are in conflict, and progressing towards forgiveness. We can develop our ability to respond openheartedly and compassionately to our family and friends, and to strangers as well. We can speak out and act to fight injustice and brutality of all kinds. We can do the interior work required to overcome our own anger, prejudice, fear, complacency. And so much more. Whenever we discern the hidden divine spark in a difficult circumstance and act to make the divine presence manifest, we are partners in the ongoing act of creation.
The Hanukah candles are lit after dark, with the electric lights turned off. As I light them, I am moved: moved as I contemplate all of the unliberated places of darkness in my heart; moved as I recall how privileged I am to live where and when I do and how most people on earth do not share that privilege. As I chant the blessings over the candles, saying “Blessed are You who effected miracles in those days and in our time,” I am fortified. There was no hope for the Maccabean guerrillas who fought against the ruling Hellenists to preserve the Jewish way of life, and yet they prevailed. It was inconceivable that a single cruse of oil could fuel the Eternal Light in the Temple to last eight days, and yet according to tradition, it did. The message is unmistakable: Do not despair. Don’t give up. Highly unlikely outcomes sometimes happen when we partner with God.
When we ignite the lights against the darkness, we bring the world a little bit closer to the primordial divine plan. It helps if we maintain our faith, but God can’t do it without us.
Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.
This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at http://firstdaypress.org/acknowledging-the-hidden-light.
Image: “Bramble Light” by Evan Leeson via Flickr.