Beha'aloteha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.

I’ve never heard anyone tell me that they are afraid of the light.Afraid of the dark perhaps, but the light never.As a child I used to hide under the covers at night with a flashlight so I could read a book in secret (since, of course, I was supposed to be going to sleep but I loved to read). I never really like the dark anyway, so part of the reading at night experience was also a way of taking control of the night by providing my own light in the midst of the darkness.

Throughout history light has had a wide variety of associations from one culture to the next. We read mythic tales about “the forces of light” battling the “forces of darkness” in many different cultures. Even the famous “Star Wars” series featured the light-saber as the weapon of choice against the forces of evil in the universe.

The Torah itself begins with God’s first creation as light (and the Jewish mystics say that it was that first divine light out of which God created the rest of the universe, including human beings). It’s interesting to think that there is a sense in which even physicists will say that in many ways our very essence, and the stuff of the universe itself, is light.

There is something powerful, sacred and inspiring about the vision of candlelight in a room. Nearly every church, and certainly every synagogue in the world, has its own eternal light hanging in the sanctuary as a symbol of God’s presence. When we rebuilt my own synagogue sixteen years ago, we created an eternal light that is solar-powered so that it is truly the most eternal light source we could possibly find.

In Jewish tradition we begin every Shabbat and every festival and holiday by lighting lights. We say it is a mitzvah commanded by God to transform that moment in time from something ordinary and everyday into something profound and sacred. “..asher kidshanu bmitzvotav vetzivanu lehadlik ner shel…..” “Who makes us holy with your mitzvot and calls us to light the lights of….”

By the act of lighting lights we are ushering in the sacred into our own lives. We become partners with God, the source of the first primordial light every time we imitate that act by lighting the lights in our homes and sanctuaries.

Light is a symbol of knowledge and wisdom as well. Every cartoon has a light bulb suddenly popping up over the head of any character who comes up with a “bright” idea. But most powerfully it is the image of light reflected in the book of proverbs that reveals Judaism’s most powerful image and association with light itself. Proverbs 20:27 says, “Ner Adonai nishmat adam” – “The soul of the human being is the light of God.”

For me, this is truly the essence of what light is all about – connecting the soul of the human being to the sacred in life. I look into the eyes of another human being and I see that spark of light within, and I see the light of God. Each of us carries that divine spark within and it is our challenge to share that spark with others, to use it to ignite the sacred fires of another’s soul.

In this week’s Torah portion, God commands Aaron and the priesthood to light the lights of the menorah on the altar of the sanctuary every day as an eternal light to burn throughout all time. How powerful it feels every single time I walk into our sanctuary, or any sanctuary, and see that very same light shining, thousands of years after the commandment was first given. It’s the divine light that we have passed from one generation to the next, over and over and over and over again, throughout the millennia of Jewish history. May that light of wisdom, inspiration and insight continue to shine.

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