"The Holy One spoke to Moses, saying: 'Speak to Aaron and say to him, "When you cause the lights on the menorah to ascend . . . "'" (Numbers 8:1-2).
The image (and task) of causing light to "ascend" strikes us as so intuitively correct, so aesthetically appropriate, and so naturally spiritual we often fail to even notice it. Again and again in religious myth, ritual, architecture, and deed, there is light up at the front of the room-the flames of which ascend toward heaven. Indeed, according to halachah (Jewish legal tradition), all a room needs to qualify as a synagogue is a special closet or chest for a scroll of the Torah, at least one window for outside sunlight (light again), and of course, a ner tamid-an "everlasting light" up front. And from this week's parashah we learn that this is also a principal task of the priesthood?to tend the light. The guys who are in charge of maintaining the connection between heaven and earth do so symbolically (and for all we know, actually!) by causing lights to ascend up at the front.
This business with "light up front," of course, is also temporal; it goes all the way back to the beginning of Genesis. "And God said, 'Let there be light!'-and there was light" (Genesis 1:3). Under closer examination, however, we realize that the events there seem out of sequence: if God made light on day one of Creation, but didn't make the sun, moon, stars, or heavenly luminaries until the fourth day, where'd the first day's light come from?
Weaving together several midrashic traditions and then adding a few of its own, the Zohar(I:31b), the master text of Kabbalah (and, after the Bible and the Talmud, arguably the third canonical text of Judaism), solves the problem by claiming that the light of day one was more than mere optical light. That light, we learn, is
. . . the light of the eye. It is the light that God showed to the primordial Adam,Adam Kadmon [not the Adam of the Garden of Eden, who would not be created yet for six more days, but the primordial human archetype, the sparks of whose soul enliven every human being]. In that "first light" Adam was able to "see" from one end of space to the other end of time. . . .
In the light of day one, in other words, people had vision of everywhere and every time. (Talk about cosmic consciousness!) But this only raises the obvious question: How come we can't see like that now?
Rabbi Yitzchak explained that the light that God created during the work of Creation shone from one end of space to the other end of time, but it had to be hidden away so that the wicked would not be able to . . . use it to make a mess of things (Zohar I:31b). [The explanation: If you could see into the future, tell me you wouldn't dabble just a teensy-weensy, little bit in real estate, or maybe, commodities!]
On the other hand, if the world were completely devoid of even the possibility of such infinite spiritual vision, it could not endure. God's problem therefore becomes: Either let people have the "Big" light, in which case they destroy the world, or take the Big light away, in which case the world implodes. According to the Zohar:
For this reason [God solved the problem by taking] the light [of day one] and treasuring it away for the righteous. . . . [That's the real meaning of] the verse in Psalms (97:11), "Light is sown for the righteous . . ." (Zohar I:32a). [In other words, the light is still there, but it's hidden away for those who do what is right.]
We then read in Zohar II:148b-149a:
Rabbi Y'hudah went on to explain that every single day a ray issues from that hidden light sustaining the entire world, for through it, the Holy One nourishes Creation. And every place where Torah is studied into the night, one thread-thin ray issues from that hidden light and flows down upon those who study. . . . In this way, every day the light renews the work of Creation.
So we "see" that the "light" is not something that illumines things before our eyes, but rather something that illumines things in our eyes, and this heightened spiritual consciousness literally sustains the universe! It's not a matter of optics, but a metaphor for consciousness raising itself from the dark oblivion of unawareness. (To this day, when cartoonists want to portray a character who just got a "bright" idea, they draw a light bulb.)
God, who is the source of all awareness, says, we imagine: "Aaron, just this will be your primary priestly task: to symbolically portray My presence, which is the source of all awareness." But there's still more.
Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger in his Sefat Emet (II:154), noticing the Hebrew idiom referring to "raising" light(s), which also appears in Exodus 27:20, suggests that raising the light symbolizes not only awakening consciousness, but also the arousal of spiritual power.
Rashi explains that "to ascend" means that the priest must kindle the flame so that it ascends by itself . . . without requiring frequent attention (cf. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21a).
This is because religious acts cannot be accomplished by one's personal strength alone, but rather, through the power of performing a religious act, a spiritual power is awakened. It is this way with everything we do because God sets in each of us a holy spark, and by means of devotion and service, the spiritual power in the deed and the soul power in the person arouse one another.
Indeed [and alas] anything accomplished by human power alone sooner or later must stop. But when the power of the Holy One is awakened, this kind of power continues forever.
We say, even today, to Aaron's modern-day rabbinical descendants charged with lighting the lights up front: Cause them to ascend, awaken us, arouse our consciousness, ignite our deeds.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner is the Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco. He is the author of several books on Jewish spirituality published by Jewish Lights Publishing in Woodstock, VT and a new novel, Kabbalah: A Love Story (New York: Morgan Road Books, 2006).
Lawrence Kushner ©2007
B'haalot'cha, Numbers 8:1–12:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,075–1,100; Revised Edition, pp. 950–973;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 843–868