The Secret Of The Eternal Light

The Secret Of The Eternal Light

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:06 p.m.
Torah: Num. 8:1-12:16
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14-4:7
Havdalah: 9:07 p.m.

We all know people whose natural inclination is “No.” They avoid setting precedents, take no chances, play it safe, and squelch initiative. But the Jewish People did not make it this far by saying “No” to everything. We made our mark by a repetitive and massive “Yes.” Even when the odds were against success, we insisted that we couldn’t afford not to try.

The idea goes back to a radical rabbinic reading of our sedra, where Moses tells Aaron how to arrange the menorah lights of the desert Sanctuary “and Aaron did so. He mounted the lamps as God had commanded Moses.” Why the redundancy? Isn’t it enough to know that Aaron “mounted the lamps as God commanded Moses”? Why must we also learn that “Aaron did so”? Why the extra “did so” [Numbers 8:1-3]?

The original Hebrew is critical. The word for “so,” ken, appears almost daily in the story of Creation, where we are told, “vayihi ken” (“It was so”). The Rabbis read “ken” not simply as “so,” however, but as a noun referring to an actual quality in the universe called ken, as if to say, “and there was ken.” When, therefore, we read here vaya’as ken  (“He did so”), we should understand more than Aaron simply did as he was told. Aaron was really adding to the world’s store of ken.

What, then, is this thing called “ken,” and why was it left to Aaron to add the last bit of it after the Tabernacle was finished?

The Kabbalists observe that the only thing in Genesis that was created without the Torah adding “vayihi ken” is the creation of light on the first day [Gen. 1:3]. That, they explain, is because the light that God created then was not the sun and stars (which were created three days later) but the primeval light called ken, whence truth, justice, and holiness descend. The world was still untried, however. Worried that the generation of the flood, for example, might misuse the light, twisting its truth, perverting its justice and trashing its holiness, God set it aside for a future moment, when Israel would be mature enough to guard it. That is why the Psalms say, “Light is sown for the righteous.” It is reserved for the “righteous of heart” someday “to rejoice in it” [Ps. 97:11].

Aaron was not just preparing lights. He was rescuing ken from its hiding place, that it might shine like a beacon of hope from the desert Sanctuary. It was later transferred to the permanent Temple in Jerusalem, and when that fell, Jews carried it wherever they went as the Eternal Light of the synagogue, making synagogues into guarantors of truth, justice and holiness — of hopeful “Yes-saying,” that is.

The Eternal Light over our ark is no ordinary glow. It is the light called ken that God set aside, and that has traveled with us through time.

The most beautiful thing about this Kabbalistic tale is the name of the light: ken. Over the ark of many synagogues we engrave biblical verses or rabbinic adages, like “Know before whom you stand.” But regardless of what we put there, the Eternal Light that sits above the scrolls provides its own message — a simple but resounding “Yes!”

This “Yes” is the quintessential Jewish outlook on life. Despite all hardship, in the face of world history, and regardless of the everyday morass into which our all-too-human institutions and aspirations inevitably slide, Jews believe the universe is inherently charged with affirmation — the quality of “Yes.”

We are meant to be dreamers and risk-takers; to shudder at the nay-sayers who hesitate to imagine boldly, who settle for mediocrity, or who shrug off incompetence, immorality, and inactivity as just the way it is.

Maybe it all started in the aftermath of Shavuot, when we realized we had been given a gift of Torah, and we took it — with an everlasting gigantic “Yes!”

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, and professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” (Jewish Lights), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

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