On a Shabbat afternoon in 1910, several leading figures in the history of Zionism gathered together on a balcony in the Neveh Tzedek neighborhood of Yaffo. The group included individuals like Yosef Chaim Brenner and Shai Agnon, who would go on to be viewed as the fathers of Hebrew literature. They regularly convened to discuss the important issues of the day, and in this particular instance, they gathered at a home across from the house of Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, the Chief Rabbi of Yaffo.
At the time, Yaffo was the secular heart of the new Jewish settlement in the land of Israel but it nonetheless still had a chief rabbi. Despite Rav Kook’s traditional dress and old world piety, he was greatly respected by members of the group for his openness, vast Torah knowledge, and creative spirit. As the sun began to set and Shabbat was coming to an end, Shai Agnon suggested that they walk over to Rav Kook’s home in order to join him for seudah shlishit. However, Yosef Chaim Brenner refused to enter. Despite his religious upbringing, he had become ardently secular and only had harsh criticism for traditional orthodox rabbis like Rav Kook. In this case, though, Brenner’s resistance was more complex. He declared, “I have already been inside before for a whole hour. The Rabbi speaks about light, light, light, and I am unable to see the light!”
In many ways, Brenner was right. Rav Kook’s greatest gift was his ability to see light where others saw only darkness. In a modern secular world that appeared empty of God, Rav Kook was able to perceive the presence of holy divine lights. This idea was so critical to his mystical philosophy that the titles of nearly all of his written works contain the word orot, lights. For example, Lights of Repentance, Lights of Torah, and Lights of Holiness. In his most striking formulation, Rav Kook writes that “in everything there is a spark of light.” All people, ideas, religions, and cultures have Godliness within them.
Rav Kook’s appreciation for the spiritual importance of light is part of a long tradition within Jewish thought. Light has been used as a symbol for our ability to apprehend and experience the Divine as can be found in the prophets in the following Biblical verse from Isaiah (60:1), “Arise, shine, for your light has dawned, and the presence of God has shined upon you!” It also features prominently in rabbinic literature where the shechinah is described as shining with a brilliant illumination. According to the Medieval Jewish philosopher Joseph Albo, light serves as a powerful spiritual symbol for just as light appears to have no physical substance, yet still exists, so too the same is true for God. Light is also essential to all life and it brings joy to the one who gazes upon it. In similar fashion, we perceive God as the source of all existence and to feel God’s closeness is to experience the truest form of happiness.
However, the most significant example of light within the Jewish tradition is the crucial role that it plays in the story of creation. Creation only truly begins when God brings forth light from the darkness and it is this primordial act which brings order to chaos and structure to anarchy. Because light exists even before the sun, the moon, and the stars are created on the fourth day, the rabbis questioned the exact nature of this special light from the first day of creation. According to the midrash, the light of creation was a spiritual light so powerful that it could illuminate the entire world. God chose to hide this light in order to prevent its abuse by the corrupt and wicked generations of humanity that would eventually follow. However, the Zohar explains that the Divine light of creation has not departed but only become hidden (or haganuz). It can still to be found within the world around us if we are able to look hard enough, and it is the presence of that light which sustains all creation.
If the light were completely hidden, the world would not exist for even a moment! Rather, it is hidden and sown like a seed that gives birth to seeds and fruit. Thereby the world is sustained. Every single day, a ray of that light shines into the world, keeping everything alive; with that ray God feeds the world. (Zohar 1: 31b– 32a)
Rav Kook’s capacity to see the divine light of creation in unusual places can surprise us even today. While attending a rabbinic conference in Germany in 1914, Rav Kook found himself unable to return to Israel due to the outbreak of World War One. He was forced to spend the duration of the war in various locations throughout Europe. For the last year and a half, he served as rabbi of a synagogue in London. During his time there, he would often visit the National Gallery. Though an art museum full of Christian themes and other inappropriate subjects is the very last place one would expect to find a traditional orthodox rabbi, Rav Kook found himself attracted to the paintings of Rembrandt, many of which depicted famous scenes from the Bible. Drawing upon the midrash and the Zohar, he explained his attraction them in the following way:
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 God created light, it was so strong and pellucid, that one could see from one end of the world to the other, but God was afraid that the wicked might abuse it. What did He do? He reserved the light for the righteous when the Messiah should come. But now and then there are great men who are privileged to see it. I think that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his pictures is the very light that was originally created by God Almighty. (The Jewish Chronicle, September 13, 1935)
In the eyes of Rav Kook, Rembrandt’s paintings revealed the hidden Divine light of creation, and despite not being Jewish, Rembrandt still had the unique ability to perceive and express this light. It may be concealed to most but the proper spiritual perspective could reveal it. Perhaps it is appropriate that Rav Kook saw this characteristic within Rembrandt’s works, since his paintings were distinguished by their use of light to create lifelike portraits. They uniquely captured a particular moment in time with all its depth, vitality, and complexity.
Rav Kook’s understanding of the Divine light of creation also adds special meaning to the holiday of Channukah, better known as the festival of lights. Over the course of the holiday, a total of thirty six candles will be lit, which, according to the midrash, is the same number of hours that the Divine light of creation shined before God hid it away. Lighting the Channukah candles is supposed to serve as a reminder that our central obligation is to uncover the Divine light of creation in all things. Our dilemma is that most of the time, we tend to view the world as Yosef Chaim Brenner did. All we see is darkness. We desperately need spiritual visionaries like Rav Kook to remind us that though the light may be hidden, it is always present. Each night of Chanukah when we light the candles is our opportunity to recognize that we too can see and reveal the light.