In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. But well before the beginning, when elemental chaos crystallized into temporal order, God created a light stretching out to eternity, and then reserved it for the righteous, as it is written, “Light is sown for the righteous.” So says the Talmud. The exact nature of that light remains a mystery. What light shines farther than the brightest stars? Can any light reveal eternity? And isn’t light available to everyone, not just the righteous?
At stake must be a different kind of light and a different kind of seeing. The light of physics elucidates the material world, but cannot plumb the soul, discern human conscience, or awaken us daily with a resounding “Yes!” upon our lips. For that, God gave us poetic imagination, imagery that persists, and words that beg to be memorized for their revelation into the human condition. So before God created Adam and Eve, God invented the gift of words for them to discover. Without words that soar, we cannot fully love, find purpose, or discover nobility. Language is light not just for sight but for insight.
Both this week’s sedra and the next one open with the power of language: two poems back to back, as if Moses insists on dying with a final poetic Hurrah! upon his lips. God thereupon sends him up Mount Nebo to see the land he will never reach, mineged, “from a distance.” While “mineged” does mean “at a distance,” its Hebrew root letters — nun, gimmel, dalet — constitute the basis of “l’hagid,” “to tell.” Moses may preview Israel’s land by the light of the sun, but he foretells Israel’s greatness by the light of language. When Deuteronomy tells us later that this old man of 120 dies with “eyes undimmed,” does it mean to say that his eyes still responded to physical light the way they did when he was 20? Or does that judgment reflect his final poems, evidence that this master of Torah never lost the light of language?
“Light is sown for the righteous” — “the righteous” here is Moses, for whom the gift of seeing eternity was reserved. He alone mastered language to the point where, even dying on a far-off mountain, he could see forever.
We cannot all be Moses; precious few of us are poets. So we consult the words of poets to see what they saw. One poetic collection that we have is our High Holy Day prayer book, the mahzor. We read it annually (or at least hold it in our hands for several hours at a time), but mistaking it for science, we take it literally, and when it fails the test for scientific truth, we dismiss it as offensive to elemental reason and even moral character. But it is not science. It is as poetic as Shakespeare (“The quality of mercy is not strain’d; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath”), Frost (“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler”), and Browning (“I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach”).
This Yom Kippur, we will hear (among other things) how in just a single year we have managed to run through an entire alphabet of sins, how “all vows we make” shall be null and void, and how God “reaches out a hand to sinners” because God is merciful in all God’s ways. What we make of all this depends on the light we choose to read it by. In the light of physical fact, such religious avowals must seem as delusionary as medieval alchemy. To see them “truly,” we need the beam of expansive metaphor which alone can situate us, like Moses, perched upon a mountain, at the edge of poetic possibility.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are unconcerned with empirical accuracy. They illuminate, instead, the world of human internality, piercing the darkness of human fear and failure, while revealing a landscape of healing and of confidence.