September 19, 2018

Why we kindle light

What is it about candle light that so draws us, like moths, to its flames? Watching children mesmerized by Shabbat candles, birthday candles and Havdalah candles opens the heart to the experience of awe and wonder as few things do.

In this week’s Torah portion B’ha-a-lo-techa (see Numbers 8:1-4), God told Moses to instruct Aaron to make the seven-branched Menorah that stood in the Tent of meeting, accompanied the people during the years of wandering, rested in Jerusalem, and then for the past two thousand years is symbolically found in every Jewish home.

On Shabbat and the holidays Jews kindle two white candles – one for Zachor (“Remember the Sabbath Day” – Exodus 20:8) and the other for shamor (“Observer the Sabbath day” – Deuteronomy 5:12) – the themes expressed in the Shabbat Kiddush.

In kindling light, a disarmingly simple act, we transform our homes, synagogues and lives with sparks of eternity and the vision of the world redeemed.

Isaiah (45:7) compared light with shalom (wholeness, integrity, and peace): “Yotzeir or u-voreh chosech, oseh shalom u-voreh ra – I fashion light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil.”

We light the Shabbat candles first because “harmony in the home and in our communities – shalom bayit” precedes all else. Judaism teaches that nothing is more important than a home filled with mutual respect, affirmation and integrity.

The Zohar relates: “Rabbi Isaac said, ‘The light created by God in the act of Creation flared from one end of the universe to the other and was hidden away, reserved for the righteous in the world to come, as it is written: ‘Light is sown for the Righteous.’” (Psalm 97:11).  Then the worlds will be fragrant, and all will be one. But until the world that is coming arrives, it is stored and hidden away.’”

“Rabbi Judah said: ‘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….[whenever Torah is learned] one thread-thin ray appears from that hidden light and flows down upon those absorbed in her. Since the first day, the light has never been fully revealed, but it is vital to the world, renewing each day the act of Creation.” (Danny Matt, The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism – p. 90)

We kindle light each Shabbat to inspire the hope that there is a better world beyond division and polarization and that we can become activists for the good. Shabbat inspires us with a vision of shalom, harmony and the Oneness of God, and Judaism calls us to make real what we envision.

Shabbat shalom!