by Raizy Lichtenstein, Jewish Studies Teacher 

On the first day of Creation, God speaks light into being:

God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
(Genesis 1:1-3)

“Let there be light,” begs a number of interpretive questions, including the nature of that light. In a recent class, when I asked 9th grade students to draw the light they imagined on this first day, students drew a variety of images, including the sun, a light bulb, fire, and an amorphous glow that had no immediate source.  

As it turns out, the ambiguity that our students highlighted in their drawings is compounded by the Torah’s description of the fourth day of Creation:

God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night, and the stars.
And God set them in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth, to dominate the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness.
(Genesis 1:14-19, Trans. JPS)

It’s clear that on the fourth day, according to the Torah’s telling, the heavenly luminaries – the sun, moon, and stars – were created.  What light, then, was brought into being when God said, “Let there be light” on the first day? 

The Talmud struggles with this question.

Rabbi Elazar said: The light that [God] created on the first day was not that of the sun but a different kind of light, through which man could observe from one end of the world to the other. But when [God], looked upon the generation of the Flood and the generation of the Dispersion* and saw that their ways were corrupt and that they might misuse this light for evil, He arose and concealed it from them […] And for whom did He conceal it? For the righteous people in the future. […]
(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chagigah, 12a, Trans. Sefaria)

Rabbi Elazar says that on the first day, God created an extraordinary light that the world did not deserve; a light that might be misused for evil. Its power was that it enabled humanity to see too far, and so it had to be hidden for a time in which it could be put to better use.

I’ve been thinking about this light over this past week; a week in which we’ve seen too far, seen too much, and in which the Jews of Israel and their loved ones in the Jewish diaspora have lived through more evil than we had hoped we’d witness in our lifetimes. And, along with all of the JCHS community and the Jewish community at large, I’ve been wondering about ways in which we might be able to bring light into our personal and communal lives.  In our L’Chaim class, we discussed the necessity of feeling a sense of community and belonging and feeling Jewish connection not just through grief, but through communal hope.  

There is a beautiful tradition of lighting Shabbat candles before sundown on Friday night, to usher in the Shabbat. The medieval commentator Rashi, in his commentary on the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 25a), states that “without light, there can be no peace.”  Perhaps one way for us to be in community with a greater sense of hope, connection, and peace is to light Shabbat candles this week, knowing that in every community around the Jewish world, others are lighting or have lit their candles too, and that we are united by this beautiful tradition, expressing our hope for healing and redemption, together.