The Festival of Lights: The Spiritual Dimension of Energy

Oh, Lord, my God, You are very great;

You are clothed in glory and majesty,

Wrapped in a robe of light;

You spread the heavens like a tent cloth.

(Psalm 104:2)

Hanukkah which means “(re)dedication” has also been called the “Festival of Lights” at least since the 1st Century CE as the earliest reference to this name is found in the historian Josephus:

And from that time [the purification of the Temple by the Maccabees] to the present time we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival. (Antiquities of the Jews 12.7.325)

Josephus is referring to the fact that Hanukkah was by his time already celebrated by the lighting of lights which he sees as symbol for religious liberty. And while it is not known when or why Jews began to light lights in celebration of Hanukkah, it has always seemed to be an appropriate ritual for the season. It is the beginning of winter, the days are short, the ground will soon freeze and the animals start to hibernate. At this darkest time of the year we want to celebrate light and life and our desire to look towards the coming back of the sun and the springtime renewal of the earth. The oil or the candle wax which fuels the light of our hanukkiyyot is actually from the sun as all energy sources on the earth originate in the energy of the sun. This original energy is stored by plants and made possible the olive oil on which our ancestors depended for food and for light.

The harnessing of many other energy sources makes modern life possible. From the current that powers our lights and computers to the fuel that transports us in cars and planes to the equipment which builds our homes and manufactures the physical structure of our society, all our technology relies on energy. We must see energy as a blessing which precedes all other blessings in that it makes so much possible by magnifying our limited physical capacity. Despite the serious problems which it is creating in its current fossilized form – air pollution which kills millions annually along with climate change – the human harnessing of energy is a gift that cannot be replaced.

But what is energy? How should we really conceive of it? In everyday language energy is often spoken of as a substance that can be utilized for a variety of activities. For example, we often speak of our bodies as having “run out of energy” when we are tired. “Energy drinks” commercially available claim to fill us up with more energy in the way we fill our cars with gasoline.

In modern science, however, energy is viewed more as a transformative process than as a physical substance. Scientists know that the law of the conservation of energy is a mathematical description of a transformative process rather than a physical commodity, despite the popular use of the term.This concept of energy as transformative process and animating power is remarkably similar to the power of God as described in numerous biblical texts.

In these texts there are two animating forces in Creation which come from God: light and wind. Wind (ruah)is the animating force which produces movement which includes animal and human life in which God breaths “the breath of life” (nishmat hayyim). In Genesis 1:2 the ruah ‘elohim (“wind from God”) “moves” the primordial deep (Hebrew: tehom) which is the basic resource out of which all Creation (except for humanity) emerges. Ruah is not, however, an inherent force, it is “the power encountered in the breath and the wind, whose whence and whither remains mysterious.” (Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann, editors., Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, p. 1203) [Ruah is also the source of wisdom (cf. Exodus 31:1-11) and prophecy (cf.1 Samuel 10:10) in that it “moves” people to achieve divine purposes in Creation.] As the biblical scholar Robert Alter wrote in his commentary to Psalm 104: “…it is God’s breath there that brings life into being.” (The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, p. 367.)

Light, and its first cousin fire, is the second animating force. God's physical manifestation or kabod (usually translated as “Glory” or “Presence”) is made up of a self-sustaining fire in a humanoid shape that gives off extraordinary brightness. As the late biblical scholar Moshe Greenberg once wrote about fire as the manifestation of God:

The choice of fire as a divine element (as in Gen. 15:17) flows from its manifold God-like characteristics. As burning and fire are used in similes of fury (Esther 1:12) and love (Song of Songs 8:6), so the passionate nature of Israel’s God (‘whose name is Impassioned’ [Exodus 34:13]) is often expressed in similes of fire (Jeremiah 4:4; Psalm 79:5; Zephaniah 3:8). The destructive power of fire provides an analogy to God’s dangerous holiness…Finally, the mysterious texture of fire—its reality yet insubstantiality, its ability to work at a distance—must have contributed to its aptness as a divine symbol. (Understanding Exodus, p. 71.)

From the kabod (which dwells in the Tabernacle/Temple) come the animating force that creates the growth and fertility of living things. Light is life while darkness, it’s polar opposite, is death. Thus in biblical sources light and wind which come directly from God are forces which create and animate the world, and which transform it from inert substance to a creation responsive to its Creator.

While in rabbinic sources the biblical images of light and wind continued to influence ideas about God’s creative powers, newer concepts derived from Hellenistic culture also came into play. In rabbinic literature there developed the idea of God's gevura (usually translated as “power”). This term corresponds to the Greek term dynamis. Aristotle used the word dynamis to mean "potential power" as opposed to energia which is "actual power" and from which we derive our modern word energy. Related to dynamis is the word “pneuma” which has the basic meaning of “breath” and is very similar to the concept of ruah in Hebrew. It eventually took on the connotation of “spirit” or “soul” which was then also applied to ruah. For the rabbis, gevura became the animating power of God that would resurrect the dead in the days of the Messiah. This is seen in the second blessing of the ‘Amidah prayer which is called the gevura blessing and deals with the resurrection of the dead. Unlike the Greek idea of an animating power or inherent animating property that neutrally exists in nature, the rabbis’ use of the term sees gevura as a quality that can only come from God. It can bring life and is also the source of revelation.

Jewish classical sources see energy as a gift, an animating force of Creation which comes only from God. Viewed in this way, energy is not a value-free commodity or natural process but an expression of divine design and will. It is a concrete expression of divine benevolence, given to enhance our lives in harmony with the rest of Creation. Just as light and wind are an manifestation of the constant creative process of God, so too the energy that powers society is intended to represent the will and power of the Holy One who constantly creates and maintains the universe. In the liturgy we speak of God “in His goodness forever renewing daily the work of creation.” Energy, since it is gift from God, cannot be misused or wasted. This theological understanding of the source and purpose of energy sets the current issues of climate change in even starker relief. If energy represents the gift of divine, transformative, life-giving power, then how can it be right to make use of energy in a way that tears creation apart?

A final homiletical point: From the consideration of the classical Jewish concepts of “light” and “wind” as the divine animating sources of life, we can see that solar and wind power are clean "godlike" energy sources that help to maintain the integrity of Creation even as they benefit humanity. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, come from ancient dead matter that must be exhumed from deep in the earth which in the Bible is the realm of the dead, Sheol. If we are people of faith who worship the Living God then we must act in a way that sustains life as responsible members of the choir of Creation. This is not an option; it is an imperative of responsibility that we cannot pass by. So when we light our hanukkiyyot this week, let us remember the ultimate Source of our light, our energy, and our lives and rededicate ourselves to the preservation of this beautiful Creation.

(The original version of this essay is from: )

1 Reply to "The Festival of Lights: The Spiritual Dimension of Energy"

  • Jesse Glickstein
    December 19, 2011 (8:22 am)

    This is a great post and I couldn’t agree more. It’s interesting because even the contrast in the aesthetic tells a story. Driving in Buffalo today on one side were new windmills placed on brownfields that everyone in the car couldn’t help. but admire while on the other side were an endless sea of smokestacks spewing carbon and other toxics into the air. No doubt turbines and solar panels have their own issues but when presented with a choice between what I saw on my right and to my left I choose “godlike” energy.

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