A couple of weeks ago I was at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. While there, I heard a number of REALLY great lectures. I’ll have more to share about them in the coming weeks, as I sort of process and integrate everything I heard and learned. I wanted to go ahead and share one tidbit with you now because I thought the story was so beautiful AND so instructive.
The speaker who presented this lovely tidbit was the Rabbi Daniel Cohen, whose talk was entitled: “Leading a Life of Legacy: Mission and Meaning in Every Moment.” I’ll have more to say about Rabbi Cohen’s talk later, but this one story was asking to be told.
Now, let me preface this by saying that I am no rabbinical student. My knowledge of Judaism is scant at best, and so what I present here I do with faith that mistakes will be taken with charity. I am happy to be corrected; just know that my intentions are pure, or at least really good.
So, with all of that lead-in complete… the story is about babies in the womb. My understanding is that this is not a biblical story, but one that exists in Jewish scholarly texts. The story says that there is an angel that comes to a baby as it grows in the womb. The angel, Lailah, provides the growing baby with all of the knowledge that it needs, in the form of the texts of the Torah. The angel also tells the growing baby about the history of her soul. Finally, Lailah provides candlelight for the growing baby so she can see from one end of the world to the other. (You can find a very accessible version of this story here.) The rabbi presenting the story referred to this knowledge transfer from angel to child as the light. The angel puts the light inside of the growing child. And then, just as the child is ready to be born the angel touches the baby’s face (slaps in the old texts) just between the lip and the nose, causing the baby to forget all of that knowledge and leaving a little dent on the skin.
The idea here is that as the child grows and encounters these ideas, these concepts, the light, the child will recognize them, remember them; the light will be more meaningful and held in a more sacred place because of that recognition.
This idea is so interesting to me because it clicks in with some other things I know and believe.
When I was studying to be a teacher, one of the things we learned is that students need some internal architecture, an intellectual framework, for deep learning to occur. One text referred to this architecture as “hooks,” places to hang new knowledge. One way to develop hooks was to tap into things students already knew or maybe had learned at one time and forgotten. I’ve seen those principles in action and know them to be effective. There is no denying that we learn better in the second, third, fourth exposure to an idea – once we have some hooks, categories, a framework for information.
I add to that my own recent personal growth, which feels a lot like a remembering: remembering who I was before I got completely lost in parenting twins, remembering who I was before a long battle with infertility damaged my sense of hope and wonder, remembering that (despite whatever flaws I might be seeing in myself at any moment) I am pretty freaking miraculous, remembering what it feels like to believe that I am never alone and that who I am matters. Remembering those things feels like finding a light, at first a small flame, maybe like a candle. And as I sit with those ideas, as I allow myself to question some of the thoughts that have kept me “safe,” I feel that light getting bigger, shining into the corners and and onto the cobwebs, bringing a warm glow.
This idea of Lailah imparting the light so you can remember it later feels very real right now, and I touch my philtrum (that’s the super weird name of the dent above your lips under your nose – words are so cool) to honor my own remembering.
The rabbi followed the tale of Lailah with an additional story about an angel, and here’s where I am really off-roading it because the lecture was outside and there were dogs and butterflies to watch. I got a little distracted. I don’t know if this second angel is from Jewish texts or if it is an idea of Rabbi Cohen’s. I did a quick search on the Googles, and didn’t find anything to clarify things, but I’m going to proceed to share anyway because I think the idea is instructive no matter what its origin – just wanted to be honest about my lack of knowledge, and about the fact that my attention span has limits.
This angel (same angel – don’t know – see previous reference to dogs and butterflies) greets us at death.
And the angel asks us two questions: 1) did you see the light I put into you, and 2) did you share it?
Rabbi Cohen’s focus is on living a life that is meaningful, and these questions really get at the heart of that. Did you figure out who you are and what you believe in? Did you let other people see that? Did you find ways to be seen and heard as your true self? Did you engage with the world in ways that upheld and demonstrated your deepest beliefs?
Did you see your light? Did you share it?
Do you see your light? Will you share it?
Would you like to?
With so much love and nary a slap on the mouth,