The Book of Radiance: Tales from the Zohar
By Rabbi Yaakov Feldman
Few things stun as much as the catch of quick light out of the blue. Given that, just imagine the sight of a gloomy crowd of wicked blind people — foolish souls who can’t see, yet who manage to strike out at others in the dark, to steal their jewels in the night, or to panic children in the shadows. And imagine turning a light on them suddenly that’s so strong that not only are their victims saved but the wicked blind themselves are able to see their own wickedness. How stunning would that light be!
Imagine then the moments before light itself was created by G-d with the simple command, “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:3). For, all there was then was utterly dark, frigid cold, and unreadable nothingness suddenly lit up from out of nowhere.
In fact we’re told that before “stretching out the heavens like a curtain,” G-d “wrapped Himself in light like a garment” (Psalms 104:2) and the radiance of His glory then illuminated the world from one end to the other (Breishit Rabbah 3). We’re likewise taught that it’s as a consequence of the act of wrapping Himself in that light that G-d became invisible to us (see Megilah 19b).
There’s much to say about G-d’s invisibleness, which is the single greatest deterrent to our belief in Him, to be sure, though it’s rarely mentioned. But the fact that His invisibleness is caused by His being over-covered by Light is captivating! It implies for one thing that were He not over-covered with it, we’d be able to see Him indeed.
One thing we can derive from that fact, of course, is that we’d do well to sit in the dark from time to time ourselves, with our eyes closed shut and our hearts stilled, in order to “catch sight” of Him!
Shut out that light, in other words, listen closely to the dark stillness, and allow G-d in. For not only does He dwell in the heart and minds of those fortunate souls who know Him by catching sight of the great light that surrounds Him and by surmising His own presence within it, He likewise dwells in the poor and wretched souls who sit in the dark but who “see” Him there, too. For in truth “the whole world is full of His Glory” (Isaiah 6:13) as He suffuses and surrounds all worlds ( Zohar III, 225a).
In any event, the Zohar refers to that light as the “Primal Light” (Zohar 1, 31b). And we’re taught that “one could see with it from one end of the world to the other” (Chagigah 12a), though this unearthly light only “shone in full splendor until Adam sinned” at which point G-d withdrew it from the world (Breishit Rabbah 12).
So, let’s see what else the Zohar offers there about this Primal Light. We learn (Zohar 1, 31b) that G-d had shined it upon Moshe when he was a baby, when “his mother hid him for the first three months of his life”; but that many years later “G-d took it away from him when he appeared before Pharaoh” so that the latter wouldn’t benefit from being exposed to it; and that “He gave it back to Moshe when he stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah” so the Primal Light and the Light of Torah could finally be rejoined.
And we’re told that Moshe enjoyed that Primal Light from then on to the end of his life, thanks to which he was able to see “the (whole) Land of Israel from Gilead to Dan” which he couldn’t do otherwise. That suggests of course that the land of Israel is available on some subtle discreet levels to anyone wherever he or she stands, when that person derives his inspiration from G-d’s own Light.
Elsewhere, though, the Zohar speaks about light in “another light”, so to speak (Zohar Chadash, Breishit 15 b-d). It offers there that the light of the sun is actually derived from the Primordial Light we referred to above, which it terms Aspaklariah D’Liayla — the great “Speculum Above”.
“Don’t be surprised by this fact,” it offers, because a lot of things down below derive from sources up above, for which it gives examples.
After all, “when a master teaches Torah, he first divulges it to his translator” (see below), who then passes the teaching on “to those close to him”, who then likewise pass it along to others down the line until the entire auditorium gets to hear the master’s words. Thus we find that when all is said and done, “everything depends on the master” who revealed the Torah’s teaching in the first place, even though the rest heard it from others’ lips.
First of all, the “translator” referred to could also be termed a “reciter”, as our rabbis taught Torah in auditoriums that were too large to carry their voices all the way through, so their messages were passed along from one “reciter” to another, so on down the line, so everyone could benefit from his wisdom. The point of the matter is that like the sun which draws its light from up above, you and I derive the Torah we live by from a loftier source — one great master or another. But it goes deeper yet.
It’s likewise true that while “Moshe was shone upon by G-d’s Glory” itself because he was so close to G-d, “Joshua was ‘shone upon’ by Moshe”, the “elders were ‘shone upon’ by Joshua”, the “prophets were ‘shone upon’ by the elders”, and the tribal “chiefs and leaders were ‘shone upon’ by the prophets” offers the Zohar (see Pirkei Avot 1:1). That’s to say that the Torah that the master whom we depend upon for our sustenance draws its light from the earlier masters all the way back to Moshe, who drew upon G-d’s own Glory for his revelations.
Returning to the idea that the sun derives its light from the great “Speculum Above”, Rabbi Elazar says in our Zohar that the sun only receives “a single thread of splendor”, despite its apparent radiance; and he volunteers that the sun’s light is a mere 1/60,075 th’s of the Speculum’s own light — which is a far, far dimmer light than the 1/100 th’s depicted in Midrash Tachuma (Beha’alotecha) to be sure!
The point of the matter is as follows. Whatever light you and I may exhibit in this life and whatever wisdom we may have is wholly derivative without exception. Nothing we do, think, or say that seems to radiate or to be splendid is our own. All of our assumed originality comes down to our pinching something off the edges of something or another we’d already learned, and adding a dollop or two of something we’d learned elsewhere to it, or the like.
Or better yet, it comes to our turning full-face toward our source and acknowledging it, and simply expressing its own brilliance to some “lesser lights” than ourselves in our own terms without actually adding a thing.
For such is the human condition: while we know precious little on our own, we can and often do derive the insights of others who know more than we, but who themselves in fact derive their insights from sources who knew far more than they. As such at bottom let it be said that everything ever known, said, or proposed is a reflection of G-d’s own “Speculum Above” which is its ultimate source.
The sooner we take that to heart, the wiser we’ll be, in fact. For, as a sage once put it, “The greatest knowledge is the realization that we know nothing in fact”.
© 2012 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman
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Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).