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Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Bending Light

Having barely passed high school physics, I surprised myself some time ago when I took on the daunting, thankless task of teaching a lesson about light, prisms and rainbows for a Hanukkah program in our community religious school.  Hanukkah is a great religious celebration of the Jewish people’s victory over its oppressors during the Maccabean War against the Syrian Greeks in 165 BCE.  Modern Jews’ readings of the story through the lenses of minority and smaller-nation status emphasize timeless values such as maintaining one’s identity and political freedom.  Yet Hanukkah’s religious fame is also founded upon its core legend, the miracle of the Menorah lamp that remained lit in the holy Jerusalem temple despite an insufficient amount of olive oil, after the Maccabean War ended.  Because light is so prominent a Hanukkah theme, I reasoned that talking a little about the physics of light and optics with families would be a cool way of emphasizing its symbolism: white light and the spectrum as metaphors for unity and diversity, waves and particles as symbols for the spiritual and the physical, common features of science as a window on God’s miracles.  What could be so hard about such a lesson, especially for an experienced, fun loving, boundary bending religion teacher like me?  What fun we would all have shining lights through prisms in a dark room, watching in amazement all the pretty rainbow colors on the ceiling.

I did all the right things to prepare.  I ran circles in my car around a ridiculous traffic circle to get to a science supplies store, whose stock of prisms I cleaned out for a whopping fifty dollars.  “So, to teach a lesson on prisms, I guess I should just shine some light through one of them, right?” I eagerly inquired of the manager.  “Uh, yeah,” he responded, “That’s what you do with those things.” I tried shining a flashlight through a prism onto the ceiling of my well-lit bedroom, only to become frustrated that no rainbow appeared.  “Honey,” my wife gently pointed out, “There’s too much residual light in the room.  You have to do this in the dark.” I read all about prisms, light and refraction on Wikipedia, understanding none of it until, two days before the big classroom demo, my wife explained to me over coffee why light can be bent at an angle into its different wave lengths which we perceive as colors.  Huh?  I made posters, rehearsed the science, kept playing with my flash light and prism in my room, this time in the dark, jumping with joy, “Yeah!” each time the seven primary colors appeared magically on the walls. I thought about light, rainbow colors, the Festival of Lights and light symbolism until I felt like my head would explode. 

The day of the program arrived.  I welcomed three different groups of students and their parents, who included at least one scientist and one ophthalmologist, both of whom were on duty as parents, not professionals.  Everyone joined me in in my makeshift refractive fun house, and I was completely alone.

“What does light do when refracted and why does it do this?” I asked the older students.

“What colors do you find in a rainbow?” I asked the youngest students.

“Do you notice that a prism has three sides?” I asked the third, fourth and fifth graders.

“Uh, Rabbi, that prism has five sides,” one of my future Nobel Prize-winning third graders corrected me.

My science was disastrous, but we had a great time as I created rainbows on the ceiling; we witnessed a tiny though potent example of God's miracles hidden in such a common experience, especially at the darkest time of the year. 

Each night of Hanukkah, I will increase the number of tiny lit candles in my Hanukkah menorah lamp and watch their muted but luminous stream flow out into the darkness of winter, into the gloom of our times.  I will stare at the shadows it makes on the wall, maybe try a prism trick or two to release the colors from their spectral prison. The late singer, Leonard Cohen wrote that “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”  As I stand watching the brightness, I will try to turn his insight into a question: how can I keep that light flowing through the cracks in the world that threaten to make it crumble?

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, April 2020)

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