These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem


Posted on November 10, 2010 by Jean

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When God began to create… darkness was over the surface of the deep… God said ‘Let there be light…’ God separated light from darkness. (Genesis 1:1)

Rav Meir suggested that water and darkness are realms of the Divine. They were contracted to make a place where humans could thrive.

The darkness is “an entity to itself… unknown and mysterious.” (Rav Meir) Darkness is older and more primal than the light that was created from it. God separated and refined the light, but light is still rooted in the dark.

We measure our lives by phases of the light (Genesis 1:15), but our source and end is darkness. One image of life is a tree, but a fallen tree, a “nurse log,” is also an image of death. As it decays, it nourishes and shelters the next generation in its darkness. (Joanna Powell Colbert) The more you grow in the light, the more you can bequeath to the next generation. The darkness you become is your wealth.

You came from darkness, too. In the dark waters of the womb, an angel taught you Torah, but before your birth, the angel touched your lips, causing you to forget. (A midrash) In our beginnings we are whole, but growing toward the light is a process of loss and dissolution. And when our earthly forms die and decay, we return to darkness.

Life in the realm of light is short. By dusk it withers and dries up… our days… pass by speedily and we are in darkness. (Psalm 90:5-10) We live briefly in this “narrow place” between the darkness below the earth and the darkness above it, but we act as if we are rulers who will live in bright sunlight forever. We live in willful ignorance of our vulnerability, ignoring the silence of the vast, unknown darkness all around and inside of us. We try to live only in the light, but God tells us to remember… I fashioned you in darkness (Isaiah 44:21).

The darkness, where God shapes all beginnings, has its parallel in the wet soil of the earth. The Rabbis said that the greatest act of faith is sowing seeds. We don’t know what happens to seeds in the dark, but we entrust them to that darkness with faith that they will grow into what we need.

In the darkness of the earth, the seeds are helpless and cannot fight their transformation. We are also helpless, even as we convince ourselves that we are invulnerable. We are like Adam, pushed down and torn open (Genesis 21:21), for the creation of something other than what our ego recognizes as self. We are powerless in the face of darkness.

What is the bridge between the realm of darkness and the realm of light? A seed digs its roots deeper and deeper into the darkness even as its branches reach toward the light.

From [darkness] we came and unto [darkness] we return. (Genesis 3:19) Why do we reach for the light when our journey can only take us back to the dark?

While Rav Meir sees the dark as a metaphor for the realm of the divine, it is also a metaphor for pain, suffering, and depression. The darkness of depression can dominate us because darkness is part of us. Depression is a place without light or hope, with no firm ground to stand on, and without companionship. Drowning in that darkness, we can only call out for release. Perish the day on which I was born… may darkness… reclaim it… Why did I not die at birth… for now I would be lying in repose, asleep and at rest. (Job 3:3-13)

If the metaphor holds, the darkness of depression, like the darkness of wet earth, should nourish us and help us grow toward the light. In a time of emotional darkness, why do we continue to seek the light? Sometimes we don’t; we want to abandon ourselves, fling ourselves further into the darkness, hoping for complete dissolution.

The darkness contains a certain lust, both to create and to destroy. And we lust after darkness; all we do is self-destructive. We are not, as God planned, at home in the realm of dry land and light.

But we fear our darkness, too. We say, “Let’s keep it light,” and never discuss or even acknowledge the dark that is always with us. Sometimes we chase the light, hoping to seize a control and a certainty that can never be ours.

Darkness is our only steadfast companion. How can we know that God is with us in the dark? How can we have faith that though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm, for you are with me? (Psalm 23:4)

We seek God when we recognize that there are no sure foundations. Maybe the darkness, although unknown and mysterious, is the steady ground we could feel rooted in. We look in the light for a place to set down roots, but the light is superficial; we are of the darkness.

There is too much tension living on this very narrow bridge (Rabbi Nachman) between darkness and light, balancing between our roots and our branches. But, like seeds, we have no choice– we shall return to darkness sooner or later. We can’t avoid it by staring at the sun. Somehow we must face, rather than give into darkness. We must explore it fearlessly and befriend it, hoping that God is there.