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The Meaning of Light

In our infancy, most of us learn to feel comforted by light and to feel insecure in darkness. That same pattern seems to continue into adulthood.
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November 30, 2021
Photo by kickstand/Getty Images

Lights! Camera! Action! In Hollywood as in human history, first came light. Illumination. Vision. Clarity. That was a necessary start for life to exist and to flourish. Light was God’s first assault on chaos. Light allowed us to move through the world without constant fear of stumbling.

In our infancy, most of us learn to feel comforted by light and to feel insecure in darkness. That same pattern seems to continue into adulthood. The darkest months of the year in which the days are short and sunlight is rarest evoke feelings of unease and melancholy in people across the globe. Humans, like houseplants, apparently thrive in sunlight.

Light changes our perceptions of reality. 

My wife and I recently did a scuba dive at night. We jumped off a boat and descended into the inky darkness of the ocean with only flashlights for illumination– narrow beams of white light in a sea of charcoal blackness. We carried light to the depths where it could not exist and what that light illuminated was breathtaking.  Even in daylight, the colors of coral, countless fish and giant sea turtles were muted because the ocean absorbed light and muted color. But when we took light to the depths and explored a sunken ship, home to so much sea life, we saw exquisite, vibrant shades of green, blue, red, purple and orange. Rainbow parrot fish were actually vividly rainbow colored. 

Are we living through Dark Ages again?

I recently read a theory that held that the so-called Dark Ages, the period from the end of the Roman Empire in the year 476 to around the year 1000, was so named because of the literal darkness that hung over most of Europe for those centuries. Imagine that. Centuries of real darkness. The theory held that the darkness was a result of a prolonged and devastating volcanic eruption in Iceland. 

Sociologists say that the term Dark Ages was not related to daily darkness but rather to a prolonged deficit of cultural and scientific advancement. By that criteria, we are currently in an age of bright, almost blinding light. Our advancements in the sciences and in the arts are staggering.  Our heads are spinning with all that we humans are creating and achieving.

By the criteria of achievement, we are without question not living through Dark Ages II, but let’s consider a second definition of Dark Ages that the Cambridge English Dictionary offers and ask ourselves if we are indeed living through a second period of dire darkness: 

“A time… when people were unwilling to accept the beliefs or opinions of others.”

That light means looking at every person we meet as a teacher, as our equal with the same rights to good and bad opinions and ideas. Even those with whom we passionately disagree. 

In a sermon I gave a few years ago, I cited the Dunbar Theory that holds that each American impacts approximately 18,000 people in a lifetime. At the time, I calculated that our congregation could impact 36,000,000 people. Count the zeros.  Think about our individual impact and that of our families. Think about our potential for being light bearers, for taking our flashlights to dark places, for shining light on beauty. That light means looking at every person we meet as a teacher, as our equal with the same rights to good and bad opinions and ideas. Even those with whom we passionately disagree. They, you and I are all processing information and trying to arrive at understanding. 

Let. There. Be. Light.

Light came into being with four simple words: Let there be light. What a powerful mantra. What a prayer. What a challenge in every encounter in our lives. Imagine how these four basic words can transform relationships. Imagine the light that mere words can pour out into the world if we take them to heart and take our own impact seriously.

On the first night of Hanukkah, we recited three blessings (l’hadlik ner, sh’asah nisim, and shehecheyanu). The first makes us conscious of the power and beauty of light. The second reminds us that miracles happened and can happen again, what I call Hanukkah’s hope clause. And the third blessing awakens us to the extraordinary light, the miraculous gift, of being alive.

Happy Hanukkah.


Rabbi Ron Li-Paz is the senior rabbi of Valley Outreach Synagogue & Center for Jewish Life, Calabasas. VOSLA.ORG.

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