FROM TIME IMMEMORIAL, light has been a crucial part of all religious rituals. Candles, fire, lights and awe for the sun and stars permeate all spiritual paths. We speak of people shining with the light of the divine, thus reflecting b’tzelem elohim, the image of God. In Genesis, God begins creation with the words ”Let there be light.” Rabbi Lawrence Kushner points out “It’s no accident that all the great creation tales begin with light,” (Honey From the Rock, Visions of Jewish Mystical Renewal).
In viewing the stunning images from the James Webb telescope, and seeing the brilliant light from galaxies, stars and nebulae from over 13 billion years ago, close to the beginning of the universe, we are seeing the power of those words, “Let there be light.”
We see these pictures and can’t help but think about the beginning of all life.
I remember, years ago, reading about an astronomer who was asked why seeing the enormity of the universe didn’t make him an atheist. His answer was that it did the opposite. Seeing the order and patterns that exist as far as we can see only cemented his belief in a Creator. The images from the Webb telescope show the beautiful harmony everywhere, revealing to many of us the invisible hand of a Creator in the birth of the universe.
We are moved by the massiveness of the cosmos when seeing these pictures, while realizing how infinitesimal is our planet and, indeed, our galaxy. And yet the images show only a tiny portion of the universe.
Astrophysicist Neil Tyson deGrasse likened what we are seeing to the size of holding a grain of sand in our fingertips at arm’s length. Rabbi Kushner says the light from creation is a “Light so awesome that even a fraction of its splendor — just so much as a ray of the thinness of a needle — is all any of us need for unimaginable spiritual illumination.”
Indeed, this grain of sand, thinness of a needle, perspective of the universe engenders a profound spirituality.
One of the images shows thousands of galaxies and a gorgeous view of the Carina Nebula, which is 7,600 light years from us, meaning we are seeing it as it was 7,600 years ago. It would take 12 years at the speed of light to cross this nebula.
When we comprehend that this is only a “grain of sand view,” we see the truth in the words from Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky proclaims His handiwork.”
God has given us the gift of wisdom and scientific knowledge that created this telescope. It reveals the cosmos at a time when we are not only intellectually capable of grasping its splendor, but also when we need an uplifting, yet humbling, outlook on our lives.
Those who have traveled into space have come back forever changed, by not only the magnificence of what they’ve seen, but also the realization of the insignificance of our planet. They point out how foolish we are in our callousness and hatred to others with whom we share this tiny part of the universe. They all emphasize that if we can create such astonishing scientific achievements, surely we can learn to live together in love and understanding, and make certain that no one on this little piece of rock lives in suffering and poverty.
Being able to see the universe shortly after its birth, and knowing that the essence of all humanity was in that burst of light, reinforces that we are here to love one another as ourselves, realizing we are all made of the same material as the cosmos.
As we learn the connection between all of humanity, we see the importance of creating a world where everyone can thrive.
Neil deGrasse Tyson explained the science of our humanity: “We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically … to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally, stardust.”
Our morning prayers include these words: “Our praise to you Adonai, Creator of the cosmic lights.”
May the images of the blazing light of creation help us remember we are all filled with that divine light, and the need to create a world filled with radiance and holiness.
For we are all stardust.
Kein yehi ratzon … may it be God’s will. Shalom.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is [email protected]