08 Sep 2017

Haftara for Ki Tabo 5777: The World Illuminated | WITH AUDIO READING 

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Please click HERE to listen to this week’s audio recording read by Rabbi Joseph Dweck.

I was sitting in my study, looking intently at a small glass vase. The vase contained only three flowers-a full-blown Belle of Portugal rose, shell pink with a hint at every petal’s base of a hotter, flamier hue; a large magenta and cream-colored carnation; and, pale purple at the end of its broken stalk, the bold heraldic blossom of an iris…I was not looking now at an unusual flower arrangement. I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation-the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence…‘Is it agreeable?’ somebody asked. ‘Neither agreeable nor disagreeable,’ I answered. ‘it just is.’…A bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged; …rose and iris and carnation so intensely signified was nothing more, and nothing less, than what they were—a transience that was yet eternal life, a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being, a bundle of minute, unique particulars in which, by some unspeakable and yet self-evident paradox, was to be seen the divine source of all existence.

 — Aldous Huxley, ‘The Doors of Perception’

Isaiah 60:1-22


This is the sixth of seven haftarot of consolation. The restoration of Zion is heralded and it, along with her nation Israel, will be illuminated with divine light. God’s presence will be the source of this light and the nation will be seen in its graceful beauty. Peace will fill the land and it will be a world summit for trade and prosperity.


Although there is a great deal in Ki Tabo’s haftara about the nations of the world coming to celebrate Israel, it is a different subject that opens and closes the haftara and sets its tenor. Yishaya speaks to us here of light.

Arise, shine, for your light has dawned…
No longer shall you need the sun for light by day, nor the shining of the moon for radiance [by night];
For God shall be your light everlasting….

Our eyes are sophisticated light sensors that receive the light that objects reflect. Our brains interpret that light as images and remarkably perceive accurate analogues of the material reality in which we live. All we ever see is light.

Light is fundamentally a carrier of information for us. It is so central to our perception of the world that we use the concept of light and sight in the abstract to speak of our ability to think. We speak of being enlightened, illuminating a subject, shedding light on an issue, and bringing ideas to light. We use this rich analogy when we ‘see’, when we come to understand something clearly.

I have seen that wisdom is superior to ignorance as light is superior to darkness. (Ecclesiastes, 2:13)

Just as the quality of light which illuminates an object determines how we see it, the nature and quality of the ‘light’ through which we think of something determines the way in which we perceive it.

Lighting directors for camera and film know this best. Tara Denise and Dennis Size are not names that most people recognise as belonging to celebrities. But in the world of television and film, they are known to be masters of lighting and have won many awards for their work. They design the set-up of lights that illuminate the stage or set. Their selection of lights determine how we see the subjects that are being filmed[1].

I have to design everything as though I’m directing it…We have to direct the attention at exactly what the audience needs to see. If the shot is a close-up of somebody’s face and it is important to see the reaction in the eyes, you want to make sure that there are not shadows on the face…or anything that takes away from the story the eyes are telling. (Dennis Size[2])

Because the light in which we see things so greatly affects our perception it is important to be aware of it. This is both for our literal visual sense and our abstracted cognitive ‘vision’. As responsible viewers we must always consider in what manner an object or idea is being illuminated. In which ‘light’ are we ‘seeing’ things? Is it bright or dim? Harsh or soft? Cold or warm? What are its colours? And, the most important question: is there enough light to properly see what we are looking at, or are there only partial elements being illuminated?

There are two types of darkness. There is darkness that is blinding and there is darkness that distorts vision, where one might see a pillar and mistake it for a man and vice versa. (Mesilat Yesharim, Helkei haZehirut)

Fortunately, light can be adjusted. As we mature we can and should learn to become the lighting directors of our minds. We can determine the nature of the lighting with which we perceive reality and can illuminate and brighten details that are dark and poorly lit. We can dim aspects that overpower a holistic vision and use softer light to calm the harsher aspects of our world. We have the ability to illuminate our thinking and perception so that we see the world in its best light. It is a skill that requires knowledge, care and practice. There are some lights that we only acquire with time and age. Other lights are discovered with exploration and study. The more varied the lighting the more we are able to positively spotlight our world.

But there is an altogether different light presented in our haftara. It is neither seen with our eyes nor perceived with our minds alone, but experienced with our souls. It is the light of life in all things:  the light which is the source of all other light. It is the very first light; the premiere of God’s creations.

 God said: Let there be light! And there was light[3]. (Gen., 1:3)

This light is the light of Being. Other light carries information to us. The data is becoming — literally in-formation. It is somehow communicated in analogue be it a visual sight or a cognitive idea. But the primal light of Creation is not in-formation that must be cognitively processed but a medium of existential connection and contact. Through it, Being is simply experienced.

When we ‘see’ things in this primal light we encounter the very essence of another entity, be it a person, place or thing. We experience its unique life force. It is when we enter this light that we share a space with God and we, in our limited humanity, come as close to experiencing existence as He does: not as something that we think about, but something that we know — something that emphatically is. Yishaya calls this God’s Light.

For God shall be your light everlasting…a light to you forever, and your days of mourning shall be ended.

 It is in this light of being that the growing pains of becoming, subside. It is in this light that we know that all is enough and perfect. Time stops in favour of perfection and the world and all that is in it shines in its fullest presence. Through it we see beyond every impediment, pain, loss and sorrow.

Nothing is predetermined; it is determined, or was determined, or will be determined. No matter, it all happened at once, in less than an instant, and time was invented because we cannot comprehend in one glance the enormous and detailed canvas that we have been given—so we track it, in linear fashion, piece by piece. Time, however, can be easily overcome; not by chasing the light, but by standing back far enough to see it all at once. The universe is still and complete. Everything that ever was, is; everything that ever will be, is—and so on, in all possible combinations. Though in perceiving it we imagine that it is in motion, and unfinished, it is quite finished and quite astonishingly beautiful. (Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale)

The experience of that light — and it can only be known through experience — is the most benevolent and glorious experience a soul can encounter. It is where true love exists. It brings us to tears as it fills us with joy and makes known to us, without question, that we and the world are alive. And in that space of self-knowledge the deceptions of envy and disdain evaporate into the radiant light of truth. It is in this light that Yishaya foresees that the nations’ scorn for Israel will end and peace will reign supreme.

In the effulgence of these precious experiences shines the light of God.

Maimonides speaks of this light in his Moreh Nebukhim[4] and likens our experience of it to flashes of lightning. For many of us we may only catch a bright and awesome glimpse of it once in our lifetimes. But we never forget its unmistakable splendour. That light permeates existence and runs beneath its surface. It is seen by the righteous souls who are faithful enough to look at, identify it and honour it[5]. But for some, the stirring truth of its presence is too frightening a sight to behold. Its power terrifies them for everything that basks in it is whole and true.

Yishaya prophesies that a day will come when that awesome primal light will be the medium through which we know the world and all that is in it. Our eyes will shine with the light of our souls and as we walk in the light with the Holy One, we will see the Soul of the World in everything around us.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck
[1] During the final season of the Oprah Winfrey Show she mentioned that her lighting team was the best in the business (Tara Denise led the team) and that it was difficult to light dark skinned people because they often came across with a grey tint on television. From 1999 to 2012 The Oprah Winfrey Show had either been nominated or won the award for Outstanding Achievement in Lighting Direction. The unprecedented success of her talk show was not just its content and its guests but the superb way in which it was lit and thus seen by the viewers.

[2] Scene Design and Stage Lighting R. Craig Wolf & Dick Block, p.548. Wadsworth, Cencage Learning.

[3] God asks for light and He receives light. This is starkly different from every other creation in which rather than say it was what God called it, it simply says ‘and it was so’.

[4] Guide to the Perplexed, Introduction

[5] Cf. Psalms, 97:11