The Light-bulb: luxury or necessity?

The Ba’al Shem Tov, the Light-bulb and the LED

Until the light-bulb was invented people managed to get through life; once it was available it became a lot easier. Now, modern-day life relies on it so heavily that in today’s day and age it is no longer a luxury, it is an inseparable part of everyone’s life.

The light bulb is a fascinating invention, one that illuminates our lives and improves our standard of living tremendously.

Formally invented by Thomas Edison around 1879, quite a while after Chassidus was revealed to us laymen, we can find multiple similarities between the luminescent light-bulb and the deeper dimension of the Torah, which allow us a greater appreciation of it.

In addressing the question of who invented the incandescent lamp, historians Robert Friedel and Paul Israel list 22 inventors of incandescent lamps prior to Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison, not to mention that all of them leaned heavily on prior discoveries of 17th century scientists who seriously studied electricity and vacuum physics, thus going wide strides towards economical productive electrical use.

They conclude that Edison’s version was able to outstrip the others because of a combination of three factors: an effective incandescent material, a higher vacuum than others were able to achieve and a high resistance that made power distribution from a centralized source economically viable.

We cannot refrain from mentioning that the light bulb is not at all such a revolutionary invention, it was just a successful attempt of combining some of the natural resources G-d has put into his world to work alongside others for the benefit of mankind.

The inner dimension of the Torah too, was a divinely inspired revelation dating back to Sinai, yet it took many centuries to develop into what it is today, – a vital component of every part Jewish life.

The phenomenon divinely “observed” by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and has been hidden even from the sages for centuries long, has been divinely “rediscovered” by the Kabbalists of the medieval age, and finally clarified and refined enough by the Arizal to be released to be studied by many more, thus making in permissible for the community of sages to use this wisdom to invent “light-bulbs” to illuminate their own life and “laboratories” – the study halls, thus revitalizing their observance of mitzvos and relationship with G-d, yet it was not yet time for it to become a driving force for the masses and a luminary of every home.

On the 18th of Elul 5458 (1698), the Ba’al Shem Tov whose mission was to finally invent the “lightbulb” of Chassidus was born, and, by divine providence, on his very birthday 26 years later experienced a divine revelation of a spiritual mentor, the prophet Achiya Hashiloni which led to his taking on the leadership 10 years later on that same day, to revive and illuminate the Jewish people with the light of the Torah’s inner dimension that his predecessors have worked so hard on developing.

He developed the model for a successful light bulb, which was now being manufactured by his many students who became lighthouses in their respective towns, cities and regions and attracted thousands to come be warmed and illuminated by newly invented “light-bulb.”

On the same day, in 5505 (1745), the final stage was divinely brought forth by the birth of the Rabbi Shcneur Zalman of Liadi, the leader which will make that “light bulb” available to every single Jew regardless of his or hers prior knowledge or affiliation primarily through his magnum-opus, the holy Tanya which shows how it is within reach for one’s thoughts, speech and actions and every aspect of his human reality to be totally dedicated to G-d. Every Jew now has an easy-to-follow manual how to install a “light-bulb” in his head and heart and turn his Jewish experience to a warm and illuminated one.

What made it possible now more than before?

We may give three reasons:

  1. A higher vacuum: as we approach closer to the coming of Mashiach, it is time for a thorough preparation, a foretaste of the future occupation of knowing G-d. The greatest darkness of night proceeds the break of dawn, so ironically in specifically these generations so spiritually numb in a sense, the vacuum exists which allows the light of Chassidus to shine and be more effective than ever.
  2. An effective incandescent material: the Ba’al Shem Tov was a man of fiery faith; he had complete faith in G-d and consequently in Jews; you can trust every Jew because what makes him one is his G-dly soul, a “part of G-d literally”. Revealing that reality in every Jew, especially the simple one, and seeing the beauty of a Jew just for what he is – a Neshama, allows for complete faith in him or her which in turn, allows them to realize their potential – a burning flame and luminary, a Jew is indeed an effective incandescent material, which unlike the light-bulb, or even the LED, is truly eternal.
  3. A high resistance: the Alter Rebbe taught that there is no better place in which to reinforce the fiery faith and feelings to G-d than in the cold rational human intellect.

While many of his colleagues were of the opinion that not everyone can be a “light bulb” but everyone must have access to one (- a Tzadik) in order to manage his way in a darkened world, he held that with the right measure of “resistance”, i.e. human intellect being put to work to “test” the power of the faith which by definition does transcend it and prevails, albeit much stronger with the added appreciation that understanding of what you do provides, every Jew can work himself to being a “light bulb” that receives power from a centralized source (a Rebbe).

This model is “economically viable”, because G-d has given every Jew a mission to do, and the Rebbe teaches how to direct the G-d given energy towards that mission, and so-to-say “independently” illuminate; your energy is not wasted, nor is the Rebbe’s, for everyone is doing the work that the divine providence has empowered them to do.

[Interestingly, these reasons combine polar extremes; the lowest generation is given the highest revelation, the simplicity of the Jew is the closest to G-d, and the cold rational brain burns with love to G-d. This is in line with the famous Chassidic teaching that the higher something is it can fall to the lowest and arise reinforced from exactly there.]

The light-bulb’s effect doesn’t create something new. It merely illuminates the dismal surroundings, revealing what was hidden there the whole time! Likewise, Chassidus doesn’t come to teach us novel concepts, rather it comes to reveal to us the true depth hidden beneath the basics of Torah.

Until the light-bulb was invented people managed to get through life; once it was available it became a lot easier. Now, modern-day life relies on it so heavily that in today’s day and age it is no longer a luxury, it is an inseparable part of everyone’s life. The light-bulb allows us to work after the sun sets, and deep down where the sun’s light never reaches.

Chassidus too, was a luxury when it was revealed, and Jewish life was manageable without it for many centuries; but now we are required to deal with spiritual challenges and opportunities that are indeed unmanageable if not for Chassidus. To be a Jew today, is only possible in the Chassidus way.

When a light is lit, it is not just a light for one, yet it becomes a light for all those basking in its surroundings; A Jew who studies Chassidus and conducts his life in its light and warmth is a “light onto his family, his community and the nations.”

So today, on the day of Chai Elul, let us add in our learning of Chassidus and together illuminate our surroundings until the time when the world will be filled with the light of G-dliness with the coming of Mashiach, may it happen now!

One more point of light: the luminescent light-bulb is in the process of being replaced with brighter, stronger and longer-lasting sources of light like the florescent bulbs and LED lamps; Chassidus too, is just a “taste” of the “Torah of Mashiach” which we will soon be able to enjoy in its entirety. And the good news is that it’s real close, and we could make it happen sooner.