In memory of my teacher
Rabbi Matityahu Solomon z.l.
There is perhaps no natural phenomenon which has fascinated man so much as light. Light moves with a speed of 186,000 miles a second. That means that in one second light could go round the earth, at the equator, seven and a half times!
Another phenomenal aspect of light is that it’s speed cannot be influenced. When you put a source of light (i.e. a machine gun which shoots photons) on the roof of a speeding plane, then to an observer on the ground the velocity of this light is still the same in all directions: 186,000 miles a second.
All this is miraculous.
But all this does not come even close to the greatest of miracles which light shows us. And that is that it “strolls”. It symbolizes rest. This was not shown by any scientist but by the great Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) who is called the “magician of light” and is very well described in a Dutch poem:
The light strolls through the house touching things.
We eat our bread converted in the sun.
You have spread the white cloth and put grasses in a vase.
This is the day on which works rests.
The palm is open to the light.
The evening light sinks in through the windows, the brown furniture thinks of itself.
In Rembrandt’s paintings we see how light touches the faces of human beings. It seems to stroll. And the human being, at the hands of Rembrandt, answers this light with fabulous colors of his face and his garments, by which everything seems to come to life. In no other painting does Rembrandt show his genius as a “magician of light” more than in his famous “Night Watch” of the militia company in Amsterdam. Standing in front of this painting, one can actually see the light strolling.
The leisurely light of Shabbat
For Jews, this kind of “strolling light” introduces Friday afternoon when the sun starts to set and announces the Shabbat. This light radiates through the windows, and after sunset, its spiritual equivalent, an inner light symbolized by the Shabbat candles, takes over. It touches everything and sets it ablaze. It blesses the furniture, the carpet on the floor, the silver cutlery, the plates on the table and the bread we eat.
Once touched by this light, the furniture starts to think of itself as it turns from an It into a Thou. It becomes a persona with a soul and feelings. It speaks a primordial language where words disappear, and a more meaningful kind of spiritual prose emerges. These are utterances of light, which are deeper than we can ever fully grasp.
This light compels us to stop working, because we experience something so amazing that it refutes “work” in the conventional sense of the word. It reveals a mystery which no scientist can describe, and that we can only experience. It sends a message that there are more things in heaven and earth than we can ever know. Things have their mystery.
It is this light which teaches us to abstain from driving a car, using our computers and our telephones; to rest our pencils and cease speaking about our finances.
Instead of believing that abstaining from these devices is “old fashioned”, we realize that it is “future fashioned”. We gain an empathy for the mystery. By abstaining, we create. We are transformed by awe, which instantaneously creates an open space between all our worldly affairs and our inner life.
It inaugurates a path for the mysterious light to enter and asks us to sanctify the day, to sing songs of praise and learn the words of God. This is the highest form of creativity. It is the bride of Shabbat, who on her arrival, transforms us into a higher being.
A mystery experienced only through abstinence
One can only fully experience the strength of this abstention and creativity when one actually withdraws from the outer world and replaces it with inner creativity. Mere contemplation of the mystery will not lead to this experience.
There is no way to see the strolling of the light unless one actually opens the door to let it in. One cannot talk about mystery. One must be grasped by it. And that is only possible when insight and creative inaction become one. It happens when all the limbs quiver and move and an upheaval agitates the whole of man. It requires action as a leap. It is as if we are hit with eternity.
Indeed, abstinence on Shabbat is not a state of passivity. It requires great courage to say “No” to the car, the computer, the pencil, and the cellphone. These items are the presentation of our inability to deal with our inner world. They have become our addiction of which we are no longer able to let go. It is the poverty of our souls which forces us to step into our cars or use our computers and cellphones. Rather than our ruling over these objects, we are enslaved to them and owned by them.
The tragedy of modernity
This is the tragedy of modern life. For so many of us, our laziness and fear keep us from refraining. We cannot deal with creative abstinence. We are incapable of creating a path for the light.
Instead of realizing this, too many of us convince ourselves that we are “progressive” and that we need to laugh at those who observe Shabbat.
But the real victim of modernity is the “progressive” person. It is not progressiveness but spiritual narrow-mindedness that has overtaken him. He is at war with the world, not able to escape it, and consequently has no inner rest. He must keep himself busy so as not to fall victim to the mystery, which scares him as nothing else, and demands that he contemplate what his life is really all about.
And thus, many come to believe that they are only human when they stay constantly busy. They argue vehemently against the laws of Shabbat, because observing these laws may reveal their lack of inner space. They cannot deal with real life because it forces them to expose themselves to the mystery of being.
Shabbat in times of war
This is the reason why Shabbat observance is most important in time of war. When living under enormous tension, people have no outlet and no way to process its psychological consequences. Instead, we are glued to the television, the radio, or social media, incapable of letting go. By this ongoing barrage of news, they become undone by their own obsession.
Those who observe Shabbat, on the other hand, do not go shopping, answer phone calls or emails, watch television or drive. For one entire day, we do not need these addictions. Just like the mysterious light of Shabbat, we stroll. Unlike the sprinter who runs to reach the finishing line without taking notice of his surroundings, we see the beauty of nature around us. We observe the inner beauty of our spouses and the sweetness of our children.
I always wonder when I pass the scene of a car accident what could have been so important that people were prepared to risk their lives for it. In their rush to get somewhere they failed to realize that they are already “there”.
Shabbat sets priorities in perspective. It objects against our way of living, protests against our indifference to the meaning of life, and rebels against our superficiality. We can only stroll with ourselves when we have no attachments.
In times of war, even an atheist or agnostic should try to observe Shabbat. Put the car, the computer, and the cellphone aside, and allow the light to stroll in. For one day during the week the war should not be allowed to enter, only the light.
 Ida Gerhardt, 1905-1997, quoted by Breukel: God and the Scientists, 1991, SCM Press LTD, p.65.
 Martinus Nijhoff, 1894-1953, ibid, p62.