Bereshit – What Light?

Bereshit: In the Beginning

One of the most puzzling passages that has given rise to much confusion occurs in the very beginning of the Torah.  It says, And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  Not difficult to understand, of course, but then, on the beginning of the fourth day we have this passage,  And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so.

You see the problem.  If the light was created on the first day and the sun and the moon that provided light created on the fourth day, where did the first light come from?  The question was asked by the Rabbis and, in the Talmud (Chagigah 12a) they teach this: “Rabbi Eliezer said that the light of the first day and the fourth day were different lights.  The fourth day’s light was the light used to illuminate the physical world and the first day’s light was to illuminate the spiritual world.”

The Rabbis of the Talmud saw the creation of the world as a historical record of creation.  I don’t.  But that does not mean that the creation story and the Rabbis’ commentary is without merit.

Taking the concept of physical light and spiritual light as my guide, perhaps the modern mind can see a modern truth in the ancient words. The physical light is, indeed, the light that comes from the stars and the sun and the varied types of non-visible light.  These are the X-rays that come from distant galaxies, the infrared that comes from ancient stars and the electromagnetic signatures of magnetars, quasars, and pulsars and the microwaves at the baby moments of the universe which still sing to us.  This is the light we use to understand the physical creation of the world.  This is the light of science which allows us to see the world around us and its magnificence.  It is, in fact, the light that literally bounces off the world to illumine our minds.

But that first light, that spiritual light, is a light of a completely different kind.  It has no physical qualities.  It can’t be  quantified or studied in a laboratory.  Yet it is real.

Our Sages teach us that God is withholding that light until the End of Days.  There is truth in this.  For this first light is the light that filled the universe before there were any sentient creatures.  It is the light that was not corrupted by immorality and sin for there was no one around to be immoral or to sin.  But that light is now hidden not because God took it away from us, but rather because we shut our eyes to it.  Only when we open our eyes and allow the truths of science to shine light on the world, only when we grasp truth and use that truth to heal relationship and the world will be open our eyes to that light of morality and ethical behavior.

But, for now, though we glimpse it from time to time, that light remains hidden.

Eitz Yosef (R’ Chanoch Zundel ben Yosef who lived in Bialystok, Poland, where he devoted his life to writing commentaries on the Midrash among other works) suggests that there are righteous people who use this light appropriately although the light would not be used by everyone until a future time.  It is because of these relatively few people that God saw the creation of humanity as ‘good.’  In other words, the world stands on the goodness of these relative few.

This light of morality and ethical life is available to everyone.  God said that creating people was a ‘good’ thing because God saw that there were people who could grasp this light and bask in it.  But those people are too few.  The light is still here, though, and God is waiting for us to look at it.  If we do, then perhaps each of us can be a pillar that holds the world up and be accounted as one of those in whom God put His trust and continue the ‘good’ that began at the beginning.

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