Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Light Within

Last weekend, Zach and I travelled with 12 temple teens to Washington DC to participate in the Religious Action Center’s L’taken Seminar. We’ll tell you more about that on March 1. What you need to know now is that the weekend culminates in the teens crisscrossing and then infiltrating Capitol Hill to meet with their representatives in Congress.

As we walked around the Hill, the kids noticed the humanoid statues on top of the Supreme Court, the Capitol dome, and the other marble structures that populate the environs. “Who’s that?” a kid would ask. We pulled out our phones, did a quick google search and said, “oh! That’s Truth!...oh hey, there’s Freedom on top of rotunda!”

It felt a little silly to say, being that statues representing virtues aren’t so in vogue right now. Not to mention, it’s not very Jewish to have such statues of goddesses and muses, but cie la vie.

And speaking of French, the goddess of Freedom makes an appearance in another important spot: yup, you guessed it, in the New York harbor as the Statue of Liberty.

These famous statues stand as a reminder of our country’s communal aspirations, symbols of the values that should guide our democracy. A while it’s possible that every American could name these values, it’s the next part that’s hard: that is, applyingthose values to the laws of the land. As much as we can agree on what they are, its nearly impossible these days to agree on what they mean for policy. It’s great that Truth stands on top of the Supreme Court, but is there such a thing as objective truth? What, or who, is truly free in the land where Freedom raises her hand high?

Symbols are powerful namely because they are interpretative. Symbols – either physical or descriptive – are shape shifters. Sure, they mean something, but just what that is depends on the person encountering the symbol.
For example, John Cunningham, an American historian, clarifies that the Statue of Liberty was not conceived or built as a symbol of immigration, but it quickly became such as the immigrant ships sailed under her outstretch arm. She was actually supposed to be an abolitionist symbol. She was conceived by the president of the French Anti-Slavery Society who was a prominent and important political thinker of his time. He, and others, saw freedom and democracy actually blooming in America with the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.

It wasn’t until Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, New Colossus, was penned and donated to an auction – the proceeds of which would help fund construction of the stone pedestal – that its freedom-as-applied-to-immigrants symbolism was cemented.

The poem famously reads:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

When applied to this week’s Torah portion, “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame/Is the imprisoned lightning” is particularly powerful. Tetzaveh opens with the command to bring clear, beaten olive oil to light the lamps of the community menorah. The lamps must remain ablaze regularly, all day long, for all time, throughout the ages. The eternal nature of this holy light is emphasized no less than four times in two verses.

But why does God need the light to burn continuously? Well, firstly, it’s a potent symbol. It can symbolize the warmth of God’s presence or the light of Torah in our lives.

Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 36:2) highlights that God, the Source of light, doesn't need the light we produce with eternal light. Rather, the ner tamid is for the people so that "you can return light to Me as I give light to you."[1]

This is where I think the light’s symbolism runs deeper. While the ambient light of the Divine is always present, it’s not always detected. We humans need a reminder of the holiness around us. Furthermore, the lights of the menorah need to be kindled by human hands – a lesson that without our hard work and good deeds, God’s light may diminish, even disappear, from Earth. The Torah teaches us that we must be curators of God’s light. We provide the fuel, we nurture its vitality.

Certainly this metaphorical torch has been passed through the generations. We kindle God’s light to this day, not just in our ark’s ner tamid, but in our Sabbath candles, channukiyot, campfires and yartzeit candles. The light evokes memory, the melodies of our lives that buoy us in difficult moments. We light candles at justice-driven vigils, symbols of being a “light unto the nations” and those who tend to the light of God on earth.

But what about the light’s dark side? Think of the olives, crushed violently into oil by human hands? That is destruction in the name ofcreating light. How many times in human history have we justified crushing buildings, trampling fields, pummeling lives in the name of illumination?

A Chassidic saying picks up on this complexity in the oil’s metaphor: “When one speaks crushing words of rebuke, it must be with the sole purpose of enlightening, illuminating and uplifting one's fellow. Never, God forbid, to humiliate and break him.”

So what does it mean to harness God’s light? As Emma Lazarus puts it, the Statue of Liberty is a mighty woman with a torch of imprisoned lightning. This is like the ancient menorah, burning with the light of life and the astonishing blaze of God’s power.

Yet what does it mean to imprison the lightning? Are we so haughty to believe that we can keep it chained?

So here, the metaphor of the eternal light shifts. While the light is a symbol of God, it is not God itself. We are not harnessing God’s power to use it as a light saber, zapping all of our opponents. Or, to mix my George Lucas metaphors, think about how this was the fatal flaw of the Nazis in the Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the storyline, the Nazis want the ark of the covenant so that they can use it as a weapon of war. This arrogance leads to their demise.

The eternal light of the tabernacle, of the temple, of Judaism today is, in fact, just a reminder. It is a bright message for eternity, a sign of our partnership with God. The word Tetzavehmeans "to command," but it also means "to connect" and "to bond." Thus the verse can also be read as God saying that the light’s radiance implants a spark of the Divine in all who gaze upon it.[2]It’s about those who kindle the light, not just the light itself.

Proverbs 20:27 says it this way: “The candle of the Eternal is the lifebreath of a human, it sheds light on one’s inner being.” The eternal light not only represents the infinitude of the Divine, its fiery dancing and spectral flame mirrors the Divine life-light inside each of us. It may burn brightly, it might be hidden away, but it inside, it is still glowing. Barukh Ata Adonai, borei shel haor b’toch– Blessed are You, Eternal One, creator of the light within.

[1]Rabbi Jerome P. David -

[2]Thought is based on a teaching from the Or HaChayim: The word tetzaveh, "to command," also means "to connect" and "to bond." Thus the verse can also be read as G-d saying to Moses: "And you shall bond with the Children of Israel." For every Jewish soul has at its core a spark of the soul of Moses.