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The Power of Light #782

06/09/2023 05:40:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Beha'alotcha
The Power of LIght

On the morning after Hurricane Sandy, I finally—and truly—understood a prayer, which I had been reciting for many years.

“Praised are You, God who rules the universe creating light and fashioning darkness, ordaining the order of all creation.”

Do you remember that morning?

Chances are, if you lived on Long Island, you had gone to bed in darkness—and gratefully welcomed the morning light.

I recall how vulnerable our family felt as the rain poured over our darkened house. My wife, son and I huddled on the couch listening to a transistor radio, and when dawn broke, we felt an organic sense of relief.

The difference between darkness and light.

These days, it’s often difficult to tell the difference.

Do you remember when television programs ended at 1 am? Stations would play the national anthem, and then default to a test pattern.

As I child, I referred to the melodies that played alongside the test pattern as “Indian Music”—because at the top of the screen there was always a picture of a First Nations chief

Today, we shop, we communicate and we surf 24 hours a day—so much so, that we have lost the concept—the difference—between night and day.

But in this week’s Torah portion, we are reminded that there is a distinction. And that is where the menorah—Judaism’s eternal source of light—comes into play.

On Chanukah, we kindle 44 candles over eight days—at a time when, surrounded by darkness, we desperately need to embrace hope and light.

But in this week’s parashahBeha'alotcha (“When you light the lamps”)—we are introduced to the original menorah—one of seven branches—which shone at the center of the camp as the Israelites made their way to the Promised Land.

During their 40-year desert march—surrounded only by sun and sand—there must have been times when the Israelites felt alone and vulnerable.

It would have been easy for the nation to succumb to a mindset of loneliness and futility.

But this week in the Torah—only months after their liberation from the darkness of slavery—God commands Moses and his brother, Aaron, to kindle that original seven-branch menorah.

The Torah tells us that at the beginning of time, God said, “Let there be light—and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3)

That initial commandment reminds us that the entire world is built upon light. Our tradition expands upon this concept by reminding us that light can also be found within us.

These days it is easy to give in to pessimism. The news is depressing. So many of the values we cherish are being assaulted.

The environment is under attack. What kind of world will our children and grandchildren inherit? Sometimes we feel, like the Israelites—that we are walking through the wilderness.

But our tradition repeatedly reminds us that life is about choice.

Do we wake up each morning and declare that life has no purpose? Or do we awaken and embrace the potential within us to make ourselves—and this world—into something better?

The menorah, which travelled with the Israelites, was kindled by Aaron, and later expanded to illuminate Chanukah. And of course, we light candles on Shabbat.

These rituals are an eternal reminder that there exists—around and within us—the potential to embrace positivity.

The great sage, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), noted that this light must also extend to the larger world.

“It obligates us to build a just and compassionate society throughout the world and especially in the land of Israel where we may teach by both personal and collective example what it means to be a covenant people—a light to the nations,” he wrote.

It is why the original seven-lamp menorah was chosen 75 years ago, to serve as the State of Israel’s original coat of arms.

It is also why at the front of every synagogue sanctuary or chapel, an eternal light (Ner Tamid) shines above the Holy Ark.

On the Saturday after Hurricane Sandy, the Cantor and I stepped over fallen trees and branches and entered CTI.

There was no power, but as we treaded through the darkness and opened the doors of the sanctuary, we were struck by something so remarkable that it left us momentarily breathless.

Months earlier, we had installed in the main sanctuary a solar powered eternal light connected to a car battery and then to a solar panel.

On that morning that light, and its warm pink hew, bathed the sanctuary. It reminded us that although hidden and often threatened, Judaism’s eternal light cannot be extinguished.

Later, a generator arrived. And as that light washed over the pews, we celebrated a scheduled bar mitzvah, along with 100 invited guests.

It was one of the most memorable celebrations we have ever experienced.

For thousands of years, in the face of persecution, prejudice, hostility and even genocide we—the Jewish people—have clung to light and the hope which surrounds it.

This week’s Torah portion reminds us there will be times when that light seems distant. There will be times when we feel forgotten or that we are navigating through darkness.

But ultimately, the sun always comes out.

From the ancient menorah to Shabbat and Chanukah, this week’s Torah reading inspires us to consider that despite what the world hands us, God’s light is never far away.

As we reflect upon these challenging times, how fortunate we are to have good friends, children and grandchildren, who surround us with light.

Indeed, each one of us possesses the power to become a Shamash—a kindler of the menorah that surround us. 

As it was in the beginning, as it is today, we can create light.

For ultimately, choosing light is a choice.  

And each one of us can be a menorah.


Rabbi Irwin Huberman


Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784