Raysh Weiss
Raysh Weiss

The Eternal Ambient Light

photo by Burly Vinson, 'Shallow Focus Photography of Yellow String Light' (Pexels)

Somewhere inside of me, there’s a hidden interior designer.  I’ve long been fascinated with how a space’s physical arrangement creates a specific mood.  Whether I’m weaving through residential streets on my bike or cutting through urban spaces on a train, I’ve always craned my head to catch fleeting glimpses of open windows that reveal the interiors of private homes.  As a film student in college, I would always volunteer to act as location scout for projects, if only as an excuse to experience first-hand new and interesting spaces.

There is something infinitely intriguing to me about how people choose to set up their living spaces as an expression of who they are and what they strive to feel. Imagine then, my pandemic-era delight in the daily experience of encountering people over virtual platforms, primarily in the spaces in which they dwell, where, as it were, a window is opened to their private worlds previously off-limits to most others.

Perhaps most interesting and impressive in my survey of others’ living spaces is observing children’s home spaces during this time. As a rabbi, I am blessed to work regularly with young students, which means I am regularly zooming with them from their homes.  A prominent interior decorating trend I have noticed pop up almost universally among kids in the past year is the use of ambient lighting. Strings of lights of all different colors snaking around the periphery of ceilings and walls seems to be the norm.

Our kids’ design impulse reveals an intuitive understanding of a deep and abiding spiritual truth: during times of darkness and chaos, there is an impulse to fill our homes with light. In a moment of uncertainty and fear, these young people strive to create spaces of comfort and refuge – pillow forts being a prime example – and an aura of warmth, whether figurative or literal, with light.

And although this trend is not nearly as widespread among adults, it is hardly a new approach.   Our kids’ instinctive design wisdom was already part of our rabbinic tradition, millennia ago.  In the Talmud (BT Shabbat 23b), our rabbis explained that the reason for  kindling Shabbat candles is that this act promotes shalom bayit — peace in the home.

Apparently, the rabbis likewise understood the importance of setting the mood through ambient lighting as we transition into Shabbat.

Last week, as we marked a full calendar year since the onset of the pandemic, the Torah portion we read in our services was the same one that we read on that very first week of virtual services last year: VaYakhel (this year the double-portion of VaYakhel-Pekudei). At the beginning of the Torah portion VaYakhel, we read, “You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the Shabbat” (Ex. 35:3).  I was especially struck by an interpretation of this verse from the Zohar, which explains that the kindling of fire in this case refers to the fire of anger. In other words, on Shabbat, we are not allowed to spark the flame of fury in our homes. Instead, the only fire we are to kindle is the flame of the Shabbat candles, with which we welcome Shabbat and establish a sense of peace and warmth in our homes.

The pandemic has been a time of heightened emotions for all of us, especially with families having been thrust into “enforced togetherness” with multiple screens of virtual classrooms and home offices competing with one another in a cacophony of blaring sounds and images throughout the day and often into the evening.   It has been a year when the hallowed, traditional concept of shalom bayit has often seemed a rather challenging and even perhaps unattainable goal.  And yet, each week, Shabbat still comes around and offers us both a reminder and an opportunity to focus on the light which warms, illumines, and serves to unify.  And it all begins with the simple act of lighting candles. Now, more than ever, we can do well to embrace spaces that are intentional and serve to promote harmony. So next time you look at a string of colored lights in your child’s room, consider the possibility that they are not simply a youthful  foray into  home decorating, but rather that they represent an internal  striving to create a sacred space.

The above post is based on a devar Torah I delivered on March 12, 2021

About the Author
Raysh Weiss, Ph.D., is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El of Bucks County, PA. (Author photo by Ann Silver)
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