Can You See the Light and the Darkness?

Closeup photograph of a bee wax candle burning with glowing wick
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Zach Truboff

On a Shabbat afternoon in 1910, several Zionist leaders gathered together on a balcony in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Yaffo. It included people like Yosef Haim Brenner and Shai Agnon, who would become the fathers of modern Hebrew literature. The group regularly convened to discuss the important issues of the day, and in this particular instance, they gathered at a home across from the house of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook, the Chief Rabbi of Yaffo.

At the time, Yaffo was the secular heart of the yishuv ha-hadash, the new Jewish settlement in the land of Israel, but it still had a Chief Rabbi. Despite Rav Kook’s traditional dress and old-world piety, he was highly respected by members of this auspicious group for his openness, vast Torah knowledge, and creative spirit. As the sun began to set that Shabbat afternoon, signaling that the day would soon be over, Shai Agnon suggested that they walk over to Rav Kook’s home to join him for seudah shlishit to hear him share some words of Torah. The group agreed to go, except for Yosef Haim Brenner, who refused. Despite his religious upbringing, Brenner had become ardently secular and was a harsh critic of Orthodoxy for what he saw as its parochialism and timidness. However, in this instance, Brenner’s resistance was not based on his feelings about Orthodoxy but on his unique feelings about Rav Kook. He told the group, “I have already been inside before for a whole hour while the rabbi was teaching. He speaks about light, light, light, and I am unable to see the light!”[1]

In many ways, Brenner was right. Rav Kook’s greatest gift was his ability to see light where others saw only darkness. In a modern secular world that appears empty of God, Rav Kook was able to perceive the presence of divine lights everywhere as long as one knew how to look for them. This idea was so central for him that the titles of nearly all his written works have within their titles the word orot, lights―for example, Orot Ha-teshuvah, Lights of Repentance, Orot Ha-Torah, Lights of Torah, and Orot Ha-kodesh, Lights of Holiness. In his most striking formulation, Rav Kook writes that “in everything there is a spark of light.”[2] All people, all religions, all cultures, and all ideologies have Godliness within them.

If others could not see the light, as Rav Kook did, it was in part because it was hidden. As the Midrash states, God created light on the first day of creation, but it was not like the light we see today because no sun served as its source.[3] This light was not physical but rather a divine light that illuminated the entire world. 

After Adam and Eve’s sin, however, God chose to hide the divine light to prevent its abuse by the corrupt and wicked generations of humanity that were to come. But according to the Zohar, the light of creation remains, just hidden (what we call the or ha-ganuz).[4] Rav Kook tries to show us that it can still be found if we look hard enough and recognize that its presence sustains all creation.

As one can imagine, Hanukkah was an important holiday for Rav Kook because it physically manifested his spiritual vision. Though there is darkness, there is also light, and just as the custom is that each person must light Hanukkah candles, so too Rav Kook taught that each of us must shine with their own unique light. He writes:

Let everyone express in truth and in faithfulness whatever his soul reveals to him, let him bring forth his spiritual creativity from potentiality to actuality, without any deception. Out of such sparks torches of light will be assembled, and they will illumine the whole world out of their glory. Out of such fragments of inner truth will the great truth emerge.[5]

The holiday of Hanukkah only confirms this theme. Though it may appear dark outside, it will eventually be transformed into light. In fact, one can even see this in the parshiyot read during the holiday, and specifically in the events of Joseph’s life. Joseph is perpetually put into places of darkness but somehow finds a way to illuminate them. Though thrown into a pit by his brothers and sold into slavery, he still rises to a place of prominence in Potiphar’s household. Even when false accusations land him in jail, an even darker place, he sees God’s hand in the dreams of Pharaoh’s baker and butler and eventually is appointed second only to Pharaoh himself. Though Joseph has suffered terribly, his trials and tribulations enable him to prepare Egypt for the years of famine that are to come, and in doing so, he also ensures that his family will survive. When he finally reveals himself to his brothers, Joseph even tells them that all of the difficulties he has endured were part of God’s plan: “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.”[6] For Joseph, it appears that divine light has finally illuminated the darkness in his life, a profound fulfillment of Rav Kook’s vision.

But is this really the case? If Joseph’s story is one of darkness becoming light, why don’t his brothers believe him? If everything has worked out exactly as God intended, why do they remain worried that Joseph will exact revenge upon them when their father Jacob dies? While Joseph may have claimed that there was light in the darkness all along, his brothers don’t think he truly believes that. They assume Joseph is just saying the kind of thing religious people do all the time: “Barukh Hashem! Thank God for all the good He has done. I know there was a lot of pain along the way, but it all worked out for the best.” The brother’s cynicism is perhaps well earned, for as we all know, there are times when the darkness is so great that no light can illuminate it. We may pray that such things should never happen to us, but we inevitably encounter people whose lives are haunted by darkness.

If, when you look, all you see is light―or at least the potential for light―then you sometimes miss things. Important things. Rav Shagar, one of the most profound thinkers to emerge from the Religious Zionist community since Rav Kook’s passing, understood this. Though he deeply appreciated Rav Kook’s teachings and was greatly influenced by them, he did not share Rav Kook’s endlessly optimistic vision that light always exists, just waiting to illuminate the darkness. Whereas Rav Kook never lived to see the Holocaust, Rav Shagar’s parents were Holocaust Survivors, and growing up, he felt their traumas as if they were his own. At 18, he witnessed the great victory of the Six-Day War and experienced firsthand the messianic hopes it unleashed, but just a few years later, he would serve as a soldier in the Yom Kippur War and experience unimaginable tragedy. During a battle in the Golan Heights, his tank was hit by enemy fire. The other members of his tank unit―his close friends―were killed, and he was left grievously wounded. After the war, he was encouraged to hold a seudat hodayah, a celebratory meal, to give thanks to God for having survived. But, he said that he was simply not able to do this, for how could he give thanks while his friends had died so terribly?[7]

If Rav Kook believed darkness can always be turned into light, Rav Shagar disagreed. In relating to his parents’ experiences during the Holocaust, he explains that “the Shoah is something that cannot be transformed, in any kind of conceptual sense, into something else… It is a black hole… that threatens to swallow everything.”[8] In reflecting on his own traumas during the war, he made clear that he had only questions but no answers. Even faith cannot easily dispel the darkness left by his friends’ absence.

Despite Rav Shagar’s misgivings, one should not assume that light has no place in his thought. While Rav Kook’s teachings depict faith as a light that illuminates the darkness, Rav Shagar also perceives faith as light, albeit one punctuated by darkness. What does this mean? If one looks closely at the Hanukkah candles when they are lit and tries to focus on the point where the flames connect to the wick, one will discover that they never quite meet. A small gap, or perhaps more accurately, a small black hole, appears between them. 

Rav Shagar notes that the Alter Rebbe, the first rebbe of Lubavitch, states that there are two kinds of light one can see in a candle. There is the nehora hivarah, the clear bright light we associate with the flame, and then there is the nehora ukama, the dark light that exists in the gap, the empty space between the flame and the wick. According to the Alter Rebbe, nehora ukama is light, but it is a light that can only be seen as darkness. It manifests what the rabbis called the aspaklaria she-einah meirah, a window or mirror meant to provide access to the divine but which cannot do so because it is opaque. When one looks into it, all one can see is the absence of light.[9] 

For Rav Shagar, seeing the nehora ukama, the darkness, along with the light, is essential because life always contains both. There is simply no escaping it. To see the darkness is not to deny the light but rather to see things as they really are and not just how we might want them to be. Only then can we give thanks for life, even when it does not shine, at least not as bright as we may like. Seeing the darkness enables us to appreciate the light that much more. It allows us to feel gratitude even when God is hidden, and in this world, described by the kabbalists as alma de-atkasya, the world of hiddenness, God is always, to some degree, absent.

When people we care about are suffering, we often feel an urge to tell them that everything will be fine. We may think we are providing them with hope, but in truth, we do this not to comfort them but to comfort ourselves. Yet what those who are suffering want from us is to see the darkness that surrounds them and not dismiss it. Only then can we work with them to see the light, as faint as it may be.

On the last night of Hanukkah, when our hanukkiyot are fully lit, a part of me always thinks of Rav Kook. By that day, we will have lit 36 candles over the course of the holiday. According to the Midrash, this is the same number of hours Adam and Eve experienced the divine light of creation before they were exiled from the Garden of Eden, and the light was hidden.[10] In lighting our Hanukkah candles, we are doing our part to reveal that hidden divine light, and I would do my best to fix my gaze upon the candles until it appeared as if they had all blended into one, for as Rav Kook taught, “Out of such sparks, will the great light emerge.”

As I have gotten older, on the last night of Hanukkah, I also cannot help but think of Rav Shagar. I now also try to look at the candles as closely as I can to see how the flames and the wick never quite touch; that there forever remains a small, empty space between them. Perhaps, on Hanukkah and especially in these difficult times, it is just as important to be able to see the darkness as it is to see the light.

[1] Yonatan Meir, “Teshukatan Shel Neshamot El Ha-shekhinah: Berur Masekhet Ha-kesharim Bein Ha-Reiyah Kook Le-Hillel Tzeitlin Ve-Yosef Haim Brenner,” in Derekh Ha-ruah: Sefer Ha-yovel le-Eliezer Schweid, ed. Yehoyada Amir (Jerusalem: Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2005), XX.

[2] Rav Kook, Orot, “Le-milhemet Ha-deot Ve-haemunot,” 131.

[3] Bereishit Rabbah 12:6.

[4] Zohar 1: 31b– 32a.

[5] Rav Kook, Orot Ha-kodesh, vol. 1, 168. Translation from Ben Zion Bokser, Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, Lights of Holiness, The Moral Principles, Essays, Letters and Poems (New York: Paulist Press International, 1978), 213.

[6] Genesis 45:5.

[7] For a powerful spiritual meditation from Rav Shagar on his experience during the Yom Kippur War, see “Zakharti Hesed Neurayikh,” in Ba-yom Ha-hu: Derashot U-ma’amarim Le-moadei Iyar (Alon Shvut: Mekhon Le-kitvei Ha-Rav Shagar, 2012), 100–109.

[8] Ba-yom Ha-hu, 64.

[9] Rav Shagar, Le-ha’ir Et Ha-petahim: Derashot U-ma’amarim Le-yemei Hanukkah (Alon Shvut: Mekhon Le-kitvei Ha-Rav Shagar, 2014), 88-93.

[10] Sefer Ha-Rokeah, Hilkhot Hanukkah, 225.

Zachary Truboff is the Director of the International Beit Din Institute for Agunah Research and Education and the author of Torah Goes Forth From Zion: Essays on the Thought of Rav Kook and Rav Shagar. Before making aliyah, he served for nearly a decade as the rabbi of Cedar Sinai Synagogue in Cleveland, Ohio. Currently, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife Jen and their four children. For more of his writing and shiurim, see