Light and Enlightenment

A holy light burns in the lights of Chanuka. A light as old as the world itself. We may not use the Chanuka lights to illuminate our homes. Their radiance may not be used for any practical purpose at all. We may only look into the light itself. We may only gaze into its depths.

But why can't we use the lights of Chanuka for some other sacred purpose? For example, why can't we use their glow to read words of Torah? What sets aside the Chanuka lights from every other worldly light? Why may we only gaze into the light itself - and what are we supposed to see there?

Darkness. You turn on a light. You can look at light in two ways. First, your surroundings are illuminated. You can see what's around you. Second, you can see the light itself, the source of the illumination. And when you look into the light - into the source - the world that surrounds you recedes from view.

When we look at our surroundings, our perception of the light is secondhand, reflected. It's "en-lightenment" - but it's not the light itself. When we look at the light itself, we see the source. We perceive the light, not as a reflection, but the thing itself. We know of the light's existence because we see the light. We don't need its reflection to prove it's there.

There are two words in Hebrew that are spelled identically. They have different vowels, but their letters are the same. One is the word for "proof," ra'ayah, and the other is the word for "sight," re'iyah. These two words express these two aspects of light: ra'ayah, proof, is the reflection of the light, the verification that the light exists by its illumination of our surroundings. Re'iyah, sight, is seeing the source. When you look at the source, you don't need proof. You don't need "en-lightenment." You are looking at the light itself.

In Tehillim, King David writes, "For with You is the source of life; in Your light do we see light" (Tehillim 36:10). Because Hashem is the "Source of life," we can perceive His light through more than just reflection, through proof; we can perceive the Source of the light itself.

His reflection in this world, nevertheless, is visible for those with eyes to see: the outrageous improbability of a "cosmic soup" that just happens to spawn life and the highly unhistorical history of the Jewish people are just two examples. Yes, we will find evidence of the light. We will find evidence of its existence - ra'ayah.

But we will not be seeing the light itself.

At the beginning of time, there shone a unique light called the ohr haganuz, the hidden light. With this light, you could see from one end of the creation to the other, meaning that you could see that Hashem is the Source of all life; you could perceive the light itself. Even though the Creator hid away the ohr haganuz after it shone for thirty-six hours, there are times when you can still catch glimpses of its hidden glow...

On the first night of Chanuka, we light one candle; on the second night, two. Thus, after two nights, we have lit three candles. If you continue this calculation, you will find that the total number of candles that we light on Chanuka is thirty-six. The thirty-six lights of Chanuka correspond to the thirty-six hours during which the ohr haganuz shone.

"For with You is the source of life; in Your light do we see light." We may not use the lights of Chanuka for any purpose, no matter how holy, because "with You is the source of life." When we look into the lights of Chanuka, we are looking into the Source of life itself. For "in Your light do we see light." We connect to the Source of life, not through its reflected light, not through evidence and proof, not through ra'ayah, but rather through re'iyah, through gazing directly into the light. And when we do that, this world of reflection vanishes from our sight.

Chanuka, the festival of light, represents the freedom from the exile of ancient Greece. Unique among the exiles that the Jewish people have suffered, the exile of Greece was the only exile in which the Jewish people never left their land. And yet an exile it still was. It was the exile of the Light. The wisdom of the Torah was exiled by Greek philosophy.

To the ancient Greeks, what is beyond the mind of man by definition does not exist; the world is a world of evidence, of ra'ayah It is a world of reflected light alone. A world of "enlightenment." The Greek eye is blind to a source that is brighter than the eye of man can bear, and thus it grasps the reflection as being the source. What I can see exists. Beyond that, beyond concrete evidence, in that place where the human eye cannot penetrate, there can exist nothing. The Greeks frequently challenged the Sages of the Talmud to give incontrovertible evidence for the efficacy of the mitzvot. Prove to us, they said, that brit mila causes some empirical improvement in a person; that keeping Shabbat changes someone, something. Their questions were the result of a misunderstanding of the nature of Torah.

To prove that an antibiotic works, we would go into a laboratory, take a blood sample, and analyze it. We would evaluate how many white blood cells there were, how many red. We would take finite measurements that would lead to empirical conclusions. There is, however, no empirical measurement for a mitzva, because the effect of a mitzva cannot be discerned in this world.

The Zohar (literally, "that which radiates light") says, "God looked into the Torah and created the world" (Shemot 161b). Although the Torah appears to be a narrative, a description of what already exists, on a deeper level the Torah is the source of what is to be. It is the source, not the outcome; the light, not its reflection.

The Torah doesn't conform to Greek thought. It doesn't observe the world. It is the source of the world. It is not a reflection of the light; it is the light itself. When you look into the light, all you can see is the light. When you look into the light itself, the empirical realities of this world, the reflections of the light, pale and fade, for we are gazing far above and beyond to the hidden Source of life itself.

"For with You is the source of life; in Your light do we see light."

More articles available at Ohr Somayach's website.