Based on the Lubavitch Rebbe’s teachings by Rabbi Simon Jacobson
The core of physics, Light defines the parameters of existence.
It is now commonly accepted that light, or in more general terms, electromagnetic radiation (microwaves, radio waves, light rays, x rays, gamma rays) has a dual nature: it behaves both like a wave and a particle. The same is true of subatomic matter: it appears as both a particle and a wave.
This is no small matter: A particle and a wave are opposites. A particle is confined to a very small volume, while a wave spreads out over a large region of space. How light can be both a wave (a field of energy) and a particle (a discrete entity) remains a mystery, yet it has been proven time and again despite its inherent paradox.
Long before science discovered the importance of light, the Kabbalah used light (ohr) as the ultimate metaphor to describe G-d’s ‘expression,’ i.e. the Divine transmission the energy that brings existence into being. Light reflects, expresses and transmits Divine energy. All existence is ‘light’ emitted from the Divine.
As physics would later discover, Jewish mysticism as explained at length in Chassidic thought describes the dual nature of light. Light combines both substance and no substance: it has no substance of its own; it always reflects its (luminary) source. Yet, precisely because of its transparent bittul (selflessness), light purely reflects and channels the deepest ‘substance’ of the source, with no ‘personality’ of its own to get in the way.
With all its paradoxical qualities, Light is our best metaphor for understanding the process of creation. By contemplating the paradox of light - that it is clearly real and yet appears to have no substance or shape -- we can approach an even greater paradox: the unity of our physical universe with the Divine ‘universe.’
The mysterious qualities of light illustrate the truth of our physical universe: that an existence cannot be defined only in terms of its own being, but as a means to illuminate a higher truth. Light becomes both a pure expression of the Divine and the metaphor that, through our reason and other faculties, allows us to experience the ways of G-d.
Light straddles the defining line between the physical and the spiritual. Light sans weight, sans mass, sans just about any of matter's properties is the most ethereal of physical “things.”' Perceptibly real, yet free of the qualities ascribed to the objects of our perceptible universe, light serves as an allegorical bridge between a mind grounded in a material environment and the metaphysical abstractions it contemplates.
Chanukah is the Festival of Light. We kindle the Chanukah flames to commemorate the victory of the ‘few over the many,’ the ‘weak over the mighty’ and the miracle of discovering the small cruse of olive oil that burned for eight days. The Temple was subsequently rededicated. All this is commemorated with light.
Chanukah like light is paradoxical: The essential miracle and message of Chanukah is the dominance of light over dark, of spiritual radiance over material gloom. Even in dark times, when the materialistic Syrian Greeks desecrated all things sacred, even as all sources of pure light were gone, ultimately one cruse of purity remained, and revived the soul. The powerful quality of light even minimal prevailed over the strongest darkness.
And the light that emerges from darkness is the strongest light of all. As Maimonides writes, that ‘these [Chanukah] flames will never be extinguished’ (unlike the Temple Menorah which ceased shining after the Temple’s destruction). Light that prevails after being challenged by darkness is a light that can never die.
This, of course, is the root of all paradoxes: its one thing to find light in good times. It’s another matter to find it in darkness. Chanukah is a time when we face darkness, yet we emerge with even greater light.
Thus the Chanukah lights are kindled in a fashion that reflects their inherent paradox that integrates “particle” and “wave”: The Chanukah light permeates and fuses both the ‘particle’ world a very specific space and defined state of being, reflecting the discreteness and diversity of the material world, and the ‘wave’ world a large field of energy that unites the entire spectrum.
In space: We light the Chanukah flames “at the door facing outward.” It’s in your home and all that a home implies, facing the outside and all that ‘outside’ implies.
In time: “From when the sun sets” we light the candles at night. Night represents darkness, and the lights of Chanukah have to pierce and illuminate the shadows.
The actual lamp and lighting process itself entails opposite forces uniting: A lamp consists of oil, a wick, and a vessel containing them so that the oil is fed through the wick to a burning flame. All these particles together create a wave of light and warmth that is more than the sum of their parts.
The flame and the wick defy each other, while joining forces and causing each other to act against their inherent natures as they attach to each other: The flame rising upward, only to be grounded by the material wick. The oil too plays a conflicting role, as it both fuels the destruction of the wick and yet ultimately sustains it. Were it not for the oil, the wick would be immediately consumed by the flame; yet at the same time, the oil acclimates the wick to the flame, transforming the wick into fuel for the flame.
The oil actually requires the wick to channel its substance and convert it into an illuminating flame. Fusion of oil (fuel) and wick (and vessel) wave and particle create light.
The colors of the flame also reflect a dual personality: ‘Nehura uchoma’ the ‘dark radiance,’ burning close to the wick, and ‘nehura chivra’ the white flame farther from the wick, the ‘bright radiance.’
The nature of light unites: one flame merges with another like one large wave. Yet we light the Chanukah flames as individual ‘particles’ each flame is lit separately (with sufficient space between them so they do not become one), each night a new additional flame.
“These [Chanukah] lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make use of them, but only to look at them,” yet we benefit from them in many ways. Indeed, this message itself (that these light are sacred) offers us the greatest benefit of all: By not using the lights, only looking at them, we learn how to sublimate ourselves and reflect a Higher truth than ourselves, rather than indulging only for our own benefit.
We refrain from work while the flames are burning. Yet, the days of Chanukah are workdays. We gather with family and friends, party, eat latkes, play dreidel celebrate the ‘particles’ while we remain focused on the deeper spiritual light waves radiating from Chanukah.
The quantum particle/wave paradox of light which defines the essence of Chanukah can help explain many other unusual elements in Chanukah. For example:
The Talmud (Shabbat 22b) discusses the essence of the Mitzvah of Chanukah lighting. Is the primary mitzvah the ‘kindling’ or the ‘placement’ of the menorah? The difference of these two approaches can be understood in context of light’s paradoxical properties of particle and wave: Is the primary focus of Chanukah light the space the ‘placement,’ the effect of the light on physical space (the particle aspect), or is it the act of creating and drawing down the light the ‘kindling’? The conclusion is that ‘kindling’ is the essence of the mitzvah; the wave aspect is dominant.
Chanukah teaches us much about the nature of light, and light illuminates many aspects of Chanukah.
Using this template as an invitation, perhaps scientists and theologians, physicists and Torah scholars, psychologists and soul doctors, can explore further parallels between both these worlds, helping uncover the Unified Field Theory that unites them (us) all.
In physics, light is an existing entity that we humans try to understand, we are amazed at its paradoxical qualities and develop methods how to tap into it. In Torah, Chanukah teaches us how we can generate light, creation unity within paradox. We are not simply observers ‘observant’ Jews watching from the sidelines and studying phenomenon around us; we actually initiate and create the phenomena.
Therein may lie a most important element in Quantum Chanukah: We are not just observers. The observer actually affects the observee. Our attitudes and actions change the course of this world. When we light Chanukah candles we release new energy into the world that shapes the future.