The Cracks are How the Light Gets Out
“Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” — Leonard Cohen (of course).
This well-known lyric from Reb Leonard is powerful, but unidirectional. It doesn’t talk about letting the light out, through those very same cracks. I’ve been thinking about light going out as we celebrate the winter holidays premised on bringing light into the darkness.
What stops our light from getting out? In Judaism kabbalah talks of klippot, shells or husks that restrain holiness. While this term can refer to esoteric aspects of kabbalistic cosmology, it also applies to our own crustiness, the armor we create around our hearts that impedes the flow of Divine light and love in or out.
Whatever the source of this hardness, maybe it’s childhood protection that has persisted into adulthood, or maybe it’s ancestral, the light of our heart still shines, even if we’re not sharing it, just as the sun doesn’t stop shining because it’s covered with clouds, to borrow from the Indian mystic poet Kabir.
Like any flame, our Divine spark, the source of our light, needs oxygen. It needs to be aerated to shine brightly and permeate through the cracks. (gratitude to my peer hashpa’ah group for this image). Perhaps the cracks Reb Leonard mentions also allow the oxygen in to aerate this spark.
At this time of year, we light lights to reconnect to this spark, the eternal light of blessing in us and contemplate how to bring that light into the world. Of course, it’s no accident that we do this at the darkest point of the year.
In addition to bringing light to a world when light seems most absent, this is also the time of the year to go inward. Rabbi Jill Hammer mentions that Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague divides the year into two halves, one dedicated to spiritual growth and one, the darker one, dedicated to rest and spiritual maintenance. In fact, we need the rest for the growth. This goes for any pursuit in life. It’s the rest after exercise that allows our muscles to grow. After great spurts of productivity and creativity, we need to reintegrate and reset.
At this time of year when (in the northern hemisphere) snow blankets the ground, protects the earth, and provides water for spring and summer (hopefully spread over a thaw period), the world is quieter. Life is slower, and Mother Earth waits. Plants send energy to their roots, and seeds also wait, getting ready to sprout with a great bursting of springtime growth. We light lights to focus our introspection, to send the light to the seeds of what is to become when spring arrives.
Or maybe the lights remind us of the light that is in our soul already. As the Proverbs say, the light of the Infinite is the human soul. Notice it doesn’t say the light is IN the soul. It IS the soul.
We are the holy sanctuary whose windows were built narrow on the inside and wider on the outside to let light out. As we contemplate the candles, we consider how to build our own windows to let the light out. This seems like a gentler analogy than cracks.
But this is the very purpose of all this spiritual stuff, prayer and ritual, to crack us open and to aerate our Divine sparks. In Judaism we pray daily asking the Source of Blessing to “open my heart to Your Torah,” Your teachings, Your way (p’tach libi b’toratecha). It has been one my most foundational prayers: Please, Holy Source of Love, open my heart.
I remember the first time I felt holy tears during Jewish prayer. When I described this open-heartedness to some of my more traditional family members, they seemed confused, almost dumbfounded, by this idea. They asked why would prayer bring one to tears. My question is why wouldn’t it? Isn’t this exactly the point?
I like to say pray like your life depends on it. Regardless of what you think about how prayer works, people often pray because of something in their lives or the lives of others or in the world, so they are praying for something that impacts their lives. In this sense alone their lives do depend on it.
We should approach all of our practices this way, like our lives depend on it. People offer many reasons for these practices. It’s tradition, mitzvot (commandments) and so on, but whether we’re lighting candles, blessing a beautiful tree, or praying in services, if we aren’t falling more in love in the process, more in love with the world, with ourselves (yes ourselves), with our beloveds, with The Beloved, then what’s the point?
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,
“You owe me.”
With a love like that,
It lights the
— Hafiz, “translated” by Daniel Landinsky