April 14, 2024
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Where Is the Light? New Novel Explores Kabbalistic Concept… in Times Square

Highlighting: “The Secret of the Light,” by Rabbi Daniel Cohen. Union Square Publishing. 2022. 144 pages. ISBN-10: 1946928305.

How can one find light in the darkest moments? That is the theme Rabbi Daniel Cohen explores in his latest book and first novel. The spiritual leader of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, Connecticut, Cohen is the author of What Will They Say About You When You’re Gone? Creating a Life of Legacy (2017) and a prolific writer and speaker on the topic. His new book is the result of a conversation that started nearly 20 years ago in Denver, Colorado, where Rabbi Cohen was serving as rabbi at Beth Midrash Hagadol-Beth Joseph.

In a first meeting with Steve Shraiberg, who would become a close friend, Rabbi Cohen was asked whether souls could be reunited. “Steve had been very close with his parents, who had both died, and he wanted to know if he would be reunited with them,” Rabbi Cohen said. “He asked about the notion of the afterlife and I told him that I believed the soul lives on forever.”

A few years ago, Shraiberg challenged Rabbi Cohen to write a book that would help strengthen people’s faith, particularly in times of grief and loss. He showed the rabbi The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity, a popular Christian novel about a man processing a tragic loss. Rabbi Cohen was inspired. “It’s really a book that helps people find ways to seek God in very dark places and to really feel the presence of people that have passed away,” he said.

So began the rabbi’s seven-year odyssey. In Jerusalem, he met a mystic who introduced him to the deeper meaning of Tehilim. “I asked him, ‘Why do people read the Book of Psalms?’ and he got very emotional and he stood up and said, ‘In the introduction to the Book of Psalms that we recite, it says that when I recite the Psalms, it should be as if I am invoking the spirit of King David. Do you know who King David was? He experienced loss in his life, challenges in his life. But no matter what, he always felt that God was with him,’” Rabbi Cohen recalled. “He said that it’s possible to tap into the Book of Psalms and realize God’s presence is everywhere. That was very powerful for me. I started to read and study the Psalms every day and it’s radically transformed not only my sense of God in my life, but also my sense of mission—to really try to amplify God’s light in the world.”

Rabbi Cohen spent time with a Kabbalah artist in Tzfat, a place that seems to hover between two worlds. “There’s a phrase in Jewish thought that you should live your life a tefah off the ground,” he said. “You’re not in this world and you’re not in the Next World, but you’re always floating. So in Tzfat,
I always feel the people there are floating between two worlds.”

Rabbi Cohen revisited the well-known Kabbalistic concept of shevirat hakeilim, the shattering of the vessels. As he paraphrased it, “At the very beginning of time, God created this infinite light and sent it into the world in vessels, but the light was so powerful that the vessels in the world broke, and that light is hidden across the universe in all places, in all times. In a response to the hidden light, God creates humanity and the mission of every human being—regardless of what their faith is—is to reveal God and God’s light in the darkest of places. And there are moments in life when it’s possible to reveal light that can never be revealed ever again. So when a person lives their life with that sense of awareness that wherever I am in the world, there’s something for me to reveal that is divine and that is eternal, every conversation that I have is now invested with possible eternal ramifications and every moment when I may feel the world is closing in on me, I know that maybe God is pushing me in a new direction and that there’s some light and some learning that I can gain from that.”

These mystical encounters and concepts fueled Rabbi Cohen’s book. Originally conceived as non-fiction, the project morphed into the rabbi’s first novel, at his agent’s suggestion. The Secret of the Light, released earlier this month by Union Square Publishing, is dedicated to the memory of Steve’s late parents, Syril and Ethel Shraiberg.

The story is set in 1980s-era Manhattan and follows Caleb Uriel, a young man considering a law career when he experiences the tragic loss of his mother, a devastating spiritual blow.

Meandering around Times Square, he runs into Elijah, a street sweeper and a hidden mystic who sets Caleb on a journey to reveal his inner light and bring it into the world.

“The idea is that the world is broken and that there are places where God’s light is not able to be released because there’s no connection between things,” Rabbi Cohen said. “When you connect two souls together, or you bring kindness into the world, you’re literally recreating the conduit from the broken pieces to let God’s light into that corner of the universe.”

Those familiar with Rabbi Cohen’s work will know of the Elijah Moment Campaign he created with Rev. Greg Doll of Norton Presbyterian Church in Darien, Conn., to encourage small acts of anonymous kindness. The Secret of the Light echoes this project.

“We’re not here to change the world, but each one of us can change the world of one person,” Rabbi Cohen said. “In Jewish thought, Elijah is always the person least expected, but he’s there at the right place. Elijah the street sweeper is in the right place for Caleb and there’s a twist in the book about Elijah’s own journey that explains why he has to be there, and Caleb learns that Elijah needed him as much as he needed Elijah. You never know who’s going to be your Elijah and you never know who you can be an Elijah for, so I’m encouraging people to recognize that God puts us in different situations in life for a reason.”


The Secret of the Light is available on Amazon.com. For more information about Rabbi Daniel Cohen’s work: www.rabbidanielcohen.com.

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