Oct 4, 2010

Breisheet 5771: "Darkness" or "The Book of Dexter (4:7)"

Breisheet 5771: "Darkness" or "The Book of Dexter (4:7)"
(c) Rabbi Menachem Creditor

I remember, as a child, waking at night to go to the bathroom.  My eyes would quickly adjust to the dim illumination of a night-light as I left my room, but when I attempted to return, my eyes and I were unprepared for the darkness.  I would do my best to leap from the threshold of my door directly to my bed, without once touching the floor.  Because there were monsters hiding, slithering in the dark.

And event today, I remain afraid of darkness.  It is something.  Even if nothing is there.  Precisely because I fear to my core that there is nothing there.  What if there's nothing there?  

The beginning of the Torah is full of creation, but there are things lurking beneath the surface of the text.  Historically, philosophers spanning the religious spectrum (Philo, Augustine, verses from the Qur'an) have defended the notion that God created everything out of nothing, that nothing pre-existed God's Creation.  But that is not the explicit meaning of the Torah's verses.  We read of God's first command: "Let there be light! (Gen. 1:3)" followed by the division between light and dark (1:4).  But in our Torah, God does not create the darkness.  (Nor does God create water, though the apocryphal Book of Enoch describes God mixing dark and light, thereby creating water.)  

The darkness, over which God's spirit hovered before creation began, was that which necessitated God's calling light into being.  How compelling the darkness must have been to provoke God!  As Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882-942 CE) comments upon that very first "Vayomer/God said" in the Torah, God speaking light into reality, the words demonstrate God's need.  God's need?  God, according to this interpretation, needs something to face the darkness, a chaotic primordial thing which hides all else.  In fact, the newly-created light makes clear that nothing else does exist, which perhaps prompts God's shaping of the cosmos, creating by reaching out.

This reaction is also made clear when the first human beings are created, resembling God, knowing only that which they could see.  These beings, created on the eve of the first Shabbat, watch the sky darken as Shabbat ends, and are afraid.  As Howard Schwartz transmits the ancient legend, they

"...grew terrified and cried out to God that the serpent was coming to harm him.  Then God told Adam to take two flints and to strike them against each other.  And when he did, fire came forth, much to Adam's amazement, and he uttered a spontaneous blessing over it.  That is why a blessing is recited over a candle at the end of the Sabbath, for fire was then created for the first time. (Tree of Souls, p. 101)"

We are afraid of the dark and always have been.  God didn't like it either.  We name our fear every night when, during evening prayers, we say "You, God, who brings the day and brings the night," attributing to our Source of Comfort the power to bring the next day, and to thereby banish the scary darkness.  

An ancient Midrash, names the darkness of the ninth plague in Exodus "the darkness of Hell/Gehinom(Ex. R: 14:2), prompting the modern commentator Rabbi Harold Kushner to write:

"Just as the light of Shabbat is a foretaste of the world to come, the reward that awaits the righteous, the darkness of the ninth plague is a foretaste of Gehinom, the punishment that awaits those who cannot truly see their neighbors, who cannot feel the pain and recognize the dignity of their afflicted neighbors. (Etz Hayyim, 377d)"

It is possible to read this comment without hearing echoes of Divine reward and punishment, but rather as an affirmation that we ache for light precisely because it is a taste of a better world, a world of seeing each and every other.  We fear the darkness because it evokes the primal fear of being alone, a fear that compelled God to create, a fear that we combat by connecting, by reaching out to someone else.

Darkness is scary.

May there be more light in our world.


Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom  ||  Bay Area Masorti  ||  ShefaNetwork.org  ||  menachemcreditor.org 
To join Rabbi Creditor's email list, send a blank email to thetisch-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.