How do you shine your spiritual light in the world?
Light is a metaphor for many things; it can commonly represent happiness, new beginnings, wisdom, insight, and holiness. Light can, at times, also be a metaphor for danger when represented by fire and/or flames. In a famous rabbinic teaching, a house of light (on fire) represents a world overseen by the Divine:
The Lord said to Abram: Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house….“To what may this be compared? To a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace in flames.” He wondered, “Is it possible that the palace lacks an owner?” The owner of the palace looked out and said, “I am the owner of the palace.” So Abraham our father said, “Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler?” The Holy One, blessed be He, looked out and said to him, “I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the universe.” [Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, 39:1]
However, metaphors and representations of light are not limited to depictions of the Divine. The legendary Rav Kook taught that each of us, as human beings, has different abilities to hold, carry, and emanate light:
Knowledge of God with an abundant love, when it is filled with its true light—according to the ability of each soul, and its capacity to receive and carry this light—it radiates forth with an absolute light the love of the world, the love of all the worlds, all creatures, and the entire circle of life and all of their existence (Orot HaKodesh, 442-443).
The light that Rav Kook refers to in individuals is a powerful concept and has deep roots in Judaic teachings. The ability for humans to emanate light originated at the beginning. The rabbis taught that the garments of “skin” given to Adam and Eve were actually garments of “light” (based upon a pun on the Hebrew word or) (Genesis Rabbah 20:12).
Yet even though their essences consisted of light, they were alienated from external light. At the end of the first day of human existence, Adam was existentially fearful because he witnessed the first sunset. He figured that it was his fault that the external light was disappearing (Avodah Zara 8a).
Adam seems to learn about light and darkness on Shabbat since he tries to banish the darkness after Shabbat with the first havdallah candle (Pirke D’Rebbe Eliezer, chapter 20).
Let us again turn to Rav Kook for inspiration and insight. The great Rabbi talked about the power of light in an interview with the Jewish Chronicle in 1935:
When I lived in London, I used to visit the National Gallery, and my favourite pictures were those of Rembrandt. I really think that
Rembrandt was a Tzadik [righteous person]. Do you know that when I first saw Rembrandt’s works, they reminded me of the legend about the creation of light. We are told that when G-d created the light, it was so strong and pellucid, that one could see from one end of the world to the other, but G-d was afraid that the wicked might abuse it. What did He do? He reserved that light for the righteous when the Messiah should come. But now and then, there are great men who are blessed and privileged to see it. I think that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light of his paintings is the very light that was originally created by G-d Almighty.
This interview is very inspiring and enlightening. Rav Kook teaches that we each harbor divine and powerful light within us, originally created by G-d, and we must work to cultivate that light. Like Rembrandt, we can find that light within ourselves and accomplish magnificent feats.
Perhaps most profoundly, the Rabbis taught (Pesikta de Rav Kahana) that Divine and human light are intertwined and interdependent:
R. Aha said, Israel is likened to an olive tree: “A leafy olive tree fair with goodly fruit” (Jeremiah 11:16). And the Holy One is likened to a lamp: “The lamp of God is the spirit of man” (Proverbs 20:27). What use is made of olive oil? It is put into a lamp, and then the two together give light as though they were one. Hence the Holy One will say to Israel: My children, since My light is your light and your light is My light, let us go together—you and I—and give light to Zion: “Arise, give light, for thy light has come” (Isaiah 60:1).
Each of us is given a unique spiritual potential and life mission. We must tap into our special spiritual light that will illuminate our path. The alternative is to walk in spiritual darkness, which would not be a life worth living. Together, we can help each other find the internal and external spiritual lights that make life—and our work in life—more clear and meaningful.
“My light is your light and your light is My light, let us go together!”
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”