A Meditation in Memory of My Mom
At some point in Western intellectual history, “good” became defined as “that which is useful.”1
This seemingly innocuous way of seeing things turns just about everything we encounter into a means to fulfill our personal agendas. While these turns of phrase may ring true on some level to most American ears, it’s no doubt, in part, because we’ve been weaned on them as the heirs to this Western worldview.2
It’s worth noting that both the Greek and Roman empires preceded us as torchbearers of the Western tradition. As long as the existence and sovereignty of the Jewish nation on its indigenous soil was useful to them, either for tax reasons or cultural tokenism, they left us alone and sometimes even supported us. However, when we ceased serving their interests, they let us know.3
Unsurprisingly, the Sages of Israel ironically referred to this brand of Western “Enlightenment” with the term “Darkness.”4
It is for this reason that they forbade the use of the menorah’s candlelight on Chanukah. According to Jewish law, you can’t read a book next to the menorah, or use it on your dining room table for a romantic, candlelit dinner.5 The light from these flames “is only to look at them,” and be illuminated by them.
Light used for our own agendas will never expand our horizons, it will only help us find our way a little better within the black boxes of what we already know (or think we know). True light, however, is so so much more.
In this spirit, please join us on a short journey chasing after the fastest thing in the universe — light. I think you’ll find it illuminating in ways you probably never imagined. As we’ll see, light can be right in front of us — we just don’t see it. Watch closely as four simple but clarifying lessons emerge before our eyes.
The universe looks dark, but it’s filled with light.
The seemingly empty black of space is chock full of photons moving every which way that have been invisibly traveling for billions of years from stars, supernovas, and even from the big bang itself.
The very air we breathe on Earth is saturated with radio waves and microwaves, infrared and ultraviolet waves — all colors our eyes can’t perceive.
Just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there. What we can see is barely the tip of the iceberg.
The mind’s eye is subject to the optical illusion of “seeing is believing.” It has a tendency to believe that what we see is all there is.
See for yourself that this isn’t true at all.
If we want to learn — to expand our minds, and be truly illuminated — we must train our brains to be aware of how thin the slice of life is that we are actually aware of.
This brings us to a question: why is most of the light in the universe invisible?
Here’s the thing about light: light can only be seen when it bounces off of something. Light that arrives at our eyes tells us about the shape, color, texture, and position of that thing or things it bounced off of.
Light allows other things to be seen, but it itself cannot be seen.
This is why when light propagates through outer space, until it reflects off something, it's invisible.6
Hence, the blackness of space.
This leads us to the next lesson:
One reason we might not be seeing clearly in life is a lack of spiritual light. We may, for example, be in an environment that obscures illumination due to any number of causes.
However, we may be also exposed to a lot of light, but not catch all that much of it simply because we lack the material in our hearts and minds for this light to reflect off of.
A kind of silly example of this is sitting in a class on the meaning of life from the world’s preeminent Kabbalist. While a lot of light may be radiated in front of you, if the sage is speaking mostly in Hebrew, sprinkling in some Aramaic, and invoking technical terminology that you’re unfamiliar with, it’s like light passing through the vacuum of space with nothing to reflect off of.7
The reason I call this a “silly example” is because we rarely sit through lectures in foreign languages (nor should we). The more quintessential example of this is the positive feedback loop of wisdom and experience.
When we are young and experience-poor, we may be exposed to wisdom, but it doesn’t mean all that much to us because it has nothing inside us to resonate with. To us, it’s just abstract “irrelevant” light, and therefore nothing “clicks.”
On the other hand, as we get older and become experience-rich, we may still be tragically, wisdom-poor. As such, the light contained in our experiences has no language of wisdom to reflect off of, and we can end up missing so many of life’s precious messages.
Try to learn with your whole being. When you are exposed to an idea that feels abstract, look inside yourself to to find anecdotes and imagery that allow the light to reflect off of something concrete. Don’t let the light of wisdom pass you by like an invisible beam of light through outer space.
Lesson #1 - What looks empty is probably full of light that we’re not yet seeing.
Lesson #2 - To see light, we need to find stuff that it can reflect off of.
Lesson#3 is about light itself.
Every human being wants to shine light on others, but many of us don’t really get what this means. In a world where everyone seems to want to be an influencer, we should look to light for guidance.
I once asked one of my most admired mentors what his guiding principle was as a person.
He responded that he always “tries to be for other people either a window to see through, or a door to walk through.”
This is precisely what light does. It isn’t busy showing us itself — its whole essence is to show us the world around us, and where we stand in it, since otherwise, we’d be completely in the dark.
"It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting," he said.
"Why don't you invest more time being interested."
To truly illuminate the lives of others, take a sincere interest in them and a sincere interest in the truth. Share truth that is relevant and meaningful to people — share it with love and compassion, and you will, by definition, shed light.
Success is not about me shining. I will shine as I help others shine.9
I can’t discuss light without thinking about my mom Fanny Cohen a”h10.
As Chanukah ends this year, so begins the fourth anniversary of her passing on the Hebrew calendar. She passed away on the day of the winter solstice, the day of the year with the least amount daylight, and the night after the Chanukah candles went out. This was especially meaningful to us because it seemed that everyone who would speak about her would inevitably rely on the same word:
My mom would speak to you a mile a minute. Peppering you with questions. Taking interest in things in your life, which until that moment, you were barely interested in. Within seconds you’d find yourself smiling if not laughing at her way of brightening your day. It seemed effortless for her. She really cared about the person across from her. And you felt it.
Only after she passed away did I begin to fathom the immense amount of light she shined into me and my life forever. She would do this with strangers, USPS workers, waiters and waitresses, new and old acquaintances in the supermarket, the barista and the hair dresser. Imagine how much light we merited to receive from her in her home.
My mom shined because she made everyone around her shine.
The more time that passes since her passing, the more I can grasp the timeless wisdom of King Solomon: although a candle only burns for some amount of time — in many cases, so much shorter than we’d like — light shines forever.11
My mom’s light shines for eternity.
She inspires me, and I know she inspired so many others to get outside of ourselves and shine light for others to be able to see what life is about.
I did say four lessons, didn’t I?
Stay tuned for Lesson #4 next week.
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Over the last 100 years, “Westernization” has become practically synonymous with “Americanization.”
In the 2nd century BCE, the Greeks systematically defiled the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem to assert their ideological dominance, and in the year 70 CE, the Romans destroyed it, burned the city, and enslaved whoever made it out alive.
That is, the worldview of seeing the world as serving our personal agendas and nothing higher. Judaism has always recognized the value of wisdom that formally exists outside of Torah, but a paradigm that closes a person’s mind, and leads to self-absorption, is considered antithetical to the Torah’s goals.
The idiom of Greek enlightenment at “darkness” was popularized by the iconic statement of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish. See this excerpt from Rabbi Jeremy Kagan’s book The Jewish Self, which elaborates on this idea. It is expanded upon, and written more accessibly in Kagan’s later book The Choice to Be.
Interestingly, the Shabbat candles were instituted to be used precisely so that people would be able to enjoy their meals and their company at dinner. Fascinating, but for another time!
If you’re thinking of light beams streaming through a window, what you’re seeing is actually the light bounce off dust and water particles:
My unglamorous advice to students of mine who go study Torah wisdom in a yeshiva or seminary is to grind away at expanding their vocabularies so that they can catch more of the light.
Nicholas Carr in his excellent book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains addresses the failed hypothesis of the internet with regards to memory. The assumption of many was that Google would render obsolete the need to remember stuff ourselves, freeing up our overworked brains for “deep thinking.” It turns out that deep thinking requires active, working knowledge and retention of information by the same brain that is doing the thinking about that information.
The name of a fantastic book by my rabbi Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein is actually called Capturing the Light, and can rapidly give you material and vocabulary to do just that with the light of Chanukah.
The word for success in Hebrew is מצליח, which is grammatically a causative word, meaning, success, in Jewish consciousness, isn’t a think people achieve. Rather, it is a dynamic people develop vis a vis others around them by making them successful. Study the story of Joseph’s first successes as an Egyptian slave and prisoner, and you’ll see what I mean.
Honorific abbreviation for “aleha hashalom,” which means, “she should behold peace and wholeness.”