Color of Life
“Life is not light, but the refracted color”
The colors of the world around us are merely the visible parts of the light spectrum that are not absorbed. Thus the leaves of a tree do not absorb green light and therefore appear green to us. Before I lose you completely, let me begin by saying that I am not really out to give a science lesson, but rather I’d like to explain the meaning behind something rather personal to me — my tallit. I was watching a show that talked about light refraction and was struck by how the light spectrum appears when magnified. Within the visible light, there are black lines where there is light we cannot see. Light is still there in the spectrum, but our human eyes are not capable of beholding all the aspects of light — we can only absorb and comprehend a finite amount. This is true with a lot of things, especially G-d. How do we as finite creatures, though made in His image, comprehend the infinite?
That, my friends, is an entirely other theological question. Let us return to my tallit. I understand and respect the traditional Orthodox opinion that women are not required or traditionally supposed to wear the tallit and I find it flattering that one of the commonly held views is that women have a greater connection to the Divine and therefore do not need these outside reminders. Let me state something plainly: I know I am not like other people, my brain functions in a completely different way and I have been, and am, reminded daily by people that everything I experience seems to be totally unique to me. I’ve basically lived as though my brain didn’t come from Earth, if you listen to most people. Frankly, I wouldn’t change that despite a few issues that result from having a different way of processing the world. One of those glitches in my brain is that, despite my femininity, I don’t seem to have a direct connection to the Almighty. The frequency gets jammed a lot and it can be impossible at times to get a signal. In other words, people all around me can see the colors of the world because of the pure light of the Divine, but my world turns black.
My tallit gadol is a traditional one, known as a Joseph’s Coat. It is reminiscent of the multicolored coat made for Joseph by his father, Jacob. I was first attracted to it because the story of Joseph has been one of my favorites since childhood. After watching the program about light refraction, the quote from Goethe’s Dr. Faustus suddenly came to mind again, “Life is not light, but the refracted color.” Everything suddenly came together in this way. White is the primary base for the tallit and represents the Divine Light. The colored stripes remind me of the reflection of the Divine in this world. We cannot reflect the perfect light that is G-d, but, by how we live our lives, others see aspects of His light reflected by us. We cannot see nor fully comprehend G-d, but we can see His presence in the world. However, there is another aspect to this tallit. As it is with the light spectrum, there are black stripes between the colors. Black is not the absence of light, but the light we cannot perceive. The black stripes remind me that even though there are times when my world is black and my cosmic connection with the Divine has seemingly crashed, He is still there. My ability to see or not see does not change His presence.
One thing about a tallit or prayer shawl that you might have experienced is the feeling of being wrapped in the Divine presence. It is a very tangible reminder that brings a feeling of comfort and peace. A Kabballist rabbi did a short piece on the Hebrew letter chaf and explained that it looks like a giant hand holding something. In fact, if we could see it, that Divine Chaf holds every individual thing in the universe. For me, the tallit is a reminder of this. He is holding me, you, and the rest of the world, which often seems to be falling apart, in His hand. Every individual thing is important to Him because it is a part of His creation. His very breath flows through the world giving it life. It may seem like a verbose explanation of a seemingly simple mitzvah, but for me it is so much more than that.
As with anything you read, fellow travelers, my hope is that you find something that resonates with you or perhaps challenges you in some way. Learning increases wisdom and nurtures growth; may we always thirst for and seek understanding. I am no expert, only a fellow traveler who also seeks understanding. “Until we meet again, may G-d hold you in the palm of His hand.” ~ Traditional Irish prayer