Sometimes, people get spooked by things or are easily frightened, and we’ll say they’re afraid of their own shadow. Well, I’m not generally a fraidy-cat (no offense if your name is actually Fraidy Katz) and usually I investigate first. Then I might get scared.
One day I was in my kitchen and I glanced out the glass patio door. That’s when I saw it. A huge monster was on my deck, just a few feet away from my table. I couldn’t actually see the monster; I could just see his shadow. Now, I’m not one to be afraid of a shadow, so I went to check it out. And that’s when I saw it: an eensy-weensy spider who probably couldn’t have climbed up a… up a … well, let’s just say it was tiny.
He was climbing up his web, or maybe going down it, I don’t know, I’m not an expert in things arachnid, and though he was physically barely larger than a speck of dust, the afternoon sun made him cast a huge shadow. Like most things, it got me to thinking.
I thought about the fact that though he was a tiny spider, he was able to make a much bigger impact on me. Though physically small, the shadow he cast was many times larger than he was. How many times have we walked with children who point with glee to their shadows and say, “Look! I’m taller than you!” Now, in my case, at a whopping five feet, seven inches tall, that isn’t a big deal, but for a five-year old, that’s huge.
It would seem, then, that shadows can teach us a lesson about physical limitations. The truth, it turns out, is that empirical evidence is not generally a determining factor in environmental impact. I may be just one person, in a specific locale (currently at my computer with no one else around,) but I can still reach others and my shadow-like sphere of influence is many times greater than my physical sphere would be, for example if I tried speaking or calling out to whoever could hear me.
R’ Moshe Feinstein z”l, was a giant, even though I don’t think he broke the five-foot mark. He said he feared that when he got to Heaven they would ask him if he had spread enough Torah, so he began writing seforim. A book can travel much farther than he could, can be in multiple places at one time, and can last for years, reaching people he couldn’t physically have reached. That’s the shadow effect, helping someone to be larger than life and greater than their physical dimensions.
Say you had to go to the hospital with someone on Shabbos. You might find Kosher food and drink there because someone thought about setting up a hospitality room for such circumstances, even when they wouldn’t be there in person. If you compliment someone, or teach them something, your words could live on in their memories for years or decades, maybe even a lifetime, affecting their behavior, and even what they pass on to others. That larger-than-life result can be attributed, once again, to the shadow effect.
That also got me to thinking about how shadows are made. We don’t have shadows in the dark. That’s because in order to cast a shadow you need a light source. I remember one night when I went to pick my daughter up and left the car running as I walked to her friend’s home. The headlights made my shadow HUGE and I looked taller than the house. It seems that the closer you are to the light source, the bigger a shadow you will cast. And that fits in exactly with my lesson from the spider and R’ Moshe.
Have you ever tried to catch a shadow? You can’t do it because a shadow isn’t tangible. In essence, a shadow is just a measure of how great the object between you and the light source is. It’s the effect that object has in blocking the light and casting its shade on other things.
Throughout the Torah, shade is construed as a form of protection, and a sign of closeness. Lot said the visitors had come to the shade of his roof beam and so he was bound to protect them. Moshe said that Betzalel must have been “in the shadow of HaShem,” i.e. very close to Him, to have such a deep understanding of how to build the Mishkan. In Tehillim, Dovid HaMelech says, “HaShem is your guard; HaShem is your shadow upon your right side.”
The greatest light source in the world isn’t the headlights of a car, it’s not the spotlight on a stage, and it’s not even the sun. In truth, the greatest source of light is HaShem, Himself. And, the closer to Him you get, the bigger your shadow, the bigger your potential influence on others.
Sometimes this influence is misused, when people in leadership positions take their opportunities for guiding people and use them for personal gain either financially, emotionally, or otherwise. You may have people coming to a Rebbe, a Rabbi, or even an entire movement of Judaism seeking enlightenment but simply being put more in the dark then they were before. Those are the people in front of an artificial light source.
The truly great people are the ones who are close to HaShem. The closer they get to the real source of enlightenment, the bigger shadow they cast. Like R’ Moshe, they use their shadow to comfort people, protect them, and guide them. They don’t block the light. They reflect it themselves so it spreads even further and we who see them get a sense of their greatness by how far the shade of their protection spreads.
We all have the ability to cast a shadow, and we all have the ability to make it spread as far as possible by coming closer to the Light Source. We have a responsibility to go beyond our perceived limitations and realize that we can influence more people than we imagined by recognizing how our shadows work.
So, am I afraid of my own shadow? Not at all. I’m in awe of it.
By Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz
Jonathan Gewirtz is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications around the world. He also operates JewishSpeechWriter.com, where you can order a custom-made speech for your next special occasion.
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© 2013 by Jonathan Gewirtz. All rights reserved.