Ladies and gentleman, consider if you will, just for a moment, the human eye. ….a remarkable gift from God. Some of us have brown eyes (show of hands), some blue (??), some hazel (???). Some of have better eyesight than others. Some of us are near-sighted, some of us are far-sighted. Some of us need glasses to read the words in our prayer books tonight, and some of you need them to see me. I obviously need them to see you.
But all of our eyes have one thing in common, and it’s something that’s kind of counter-intuitive. Think about it. The eye is white, with a black part in its middle. Now, out of what part would you expect to see? The white part, right? Because white is light. White is bright. But no, we see out of the black part. Everything we view around us, from the great expanse of sky to the smallest particle of dust under the bed – everything is viewed through the dark.
For us, the dark becomes the frame for our universe. It helps us keep our balance. After all, as the great early sage Rabbi Yochanan pointed out, someone who walks only in the light will never adjust to darkness. But someone who has the experience of walking in darkness can always find the light.
There’s no escaping darkness and light. They are primordial elements of the universe, organized by God with the first sweep of the Divine hand and the first Holy utterance. But maybe because of this, they hold tremendous power over us. So we sometimes find them very frightening rather than enlightening. And we sometimes forget we need one to appreciate the other.
Let’s face it: We human beings are very afraid of the dark. We have been, ever since Adam and Eve, who – according to tradition – created fire to dispel the fear of night. Things go bump in the night. Things creak and screech and howl in the night. Things might even be hiding under our bed – only at night. How many of us, as children, left the closet light on, or had a set of nightlights in our bedrooms, the hallway, and the bathroom?
It wasn’t just because we might stumble if we had to get up in the middle of the night. It was also because we believed that the darkness was a fearful place to be.
Some people never grow out of that childhood fear. In her new book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” Barbara Brown Taylor – an Episcopal priest and theologian, writes that her family’s particular brand of Christianity taught her to fear the darkness because God is only in the light. These beliefs instilled in her as a child, she refers to as “full solar spirituality,” since, as she writes, “it focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith.”
That may sound attractive, having God connected to concepts like brightness and happiness. But Taylor found that these beliefs also had, so to speak, a dark side:
“If you have ever belonged to such a community,” she writes,” you may have discovered that the trouble starts when darkness falls on your life, which can happen in any number of unsurprising ways: you lose your job, your marriage falls apart, your child acts out in some attention-getting way. If you still do not get the message, sooner or later it will be made explicit for you: the darkness is your own fault, because you do not have enough faith.”
This bifurcation, this choice that was laid out for Taylor – that you can either walk with God in the light or walk alone in the darkness – is a shadow that was cast over her life for many years. It led her to challenge, to question, to struggle – and to doubt herself.
But what she discovered, over time, is what we Jews have known for thousands of years: God made us with both dark and light in us, just as God fashioned the universe with dark and light. Judaism does not relegate people with darkness inside of them to a world without faith, without God. Judaism embraces us, accepts us for what we are, for what God made us. The objective is not to banish the darkness, but to keep it in balance.
Yes, God is in the light and in the dark. Every morning in our prayers, we recite the prophet Isaiah’s praise of God as, “יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ,” Creator of light and creator of darkness. In fact, when we read Genesis at Simchat Torah, we’ll be reminded that God chose to start the cycle of day and night with evening, then morning, for each day. Learning to walk in the dark is simply part of everyday existence, built into the very fabric of the universe.
And that is step one of what Taylor learned on her journey, which is that we cannot control the journey itself, where it takes us, or how long it takes. Step 1 of learning to walk in the dark is to give up running the show.
I suppose the ancient Israelites had to learn that lesson, and they were probably a lot more scared of the world than we are. It was easy for them to travel in the wilderness during the daytime, but how would they make their way at night? God’s pillar of cloud simply turned into a pillar of fire – providing them a guidepost throughout the night. They just had to trust that God would guide their steps so that they would not walk into harm’s way.
We don’t have a pillar of fire anymore. God leaves us more to our own homing devices. But a lot of what happens to us is still outside our control, however strong our desire may be to control every single choice and situation.
The loss of a job or the loss of a loved one, or the loss of authority over a child. The loss of one of our senses, one of our organs, or even part of our memory. Those are all dark challenges that can stop us right in our tracks, that make us want to turn back the clock to the more comfortable existence of yesterday or last week or last month, when we felt like we had the power to make these decisions . . . just like the ancient Israelites always thought about trying to retrace their steps back to Egypt. If only Moses hadn’t led us into the wilderness, they complained, our lives would be so much better.
But God took them the long way to the Promised Land, full of twists and turns that obscured the path back the other way….just as God seems to put us in situations from which we cannot withdraw. Our children are not going to get any younger, and neither are our parents. Our eyesight won’t improve. And we will be forced to grope around to re-train ourselves to function in the world as it is, not as we might wish it still could be.
But the darkness that challenges us in the world around us is nothing compared to the darkness within us. And that’s where Taylor found step two of learning to walk in the dark:
After you learn to give up running the show, then you sign the waiver that allows you to bump into some things that may frighten you at first.
I take that to mean the darkness within.
And yes, we are frightened by dark inside of us. When we are angry, sometimes we even scare ourselves by how our entire body shakes, or how hard our head pounds, or how much we scare the people around us. When we suffer from depression, we know it can take us to the brink of an abyss from which we might not be able to withdraw. Or we find ourselves giving into the momentary pleasure of the manic high – even knowing that the roller coaster drop will follow.
Sometimes the darkness can be so deep, so all-encompassing, that we have to seek help from therapy or medication. But even that does not banish the darkness. It only keeps it in balance.
In Judaism we describe this as a balance between the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-rah, the good inclination and the evil inclination. They are not mutually exclusive terms. They are actually harmonious.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchek wrote that
“When God engraved and carved out the world, he did not entirely eradicate the chaos and the voice, the deep, the darkness, from the domain of His creation. Rather, he separated the complete, perfect existence from the forces of negation, confusion, and turmoil, and set up cosmic boundaries, eternal laws, to keep them apart.”
That same struggle for equilibrium, wrote Soloveitchek, is within each of us as well:
“Man . . . incorporates within himself the most perfect creation and the most unimaginable chaos and void, light and darkness, the abyss and the law, a coarse, turbid being and a clear, lucid existence, the beast and the image of God. . .[and] The most fundamental principle of Judaism is that man must create himself.”
That is so hard. Because a lot of the time we don’t live in full sunlight or in complete darkness…we exist at the edge, where we are afraid of what we bump into. The Mishnah teaches us that “at night, though it be night, one has the light of the moon, the stars, and the planets. Then when is it really dark? Just before the dawn. After the moon sets and the stars set and the planets vanish, there is no darkness deeper than the hour before the dawn. But it is in that hour that the Holy One answers the world and all that are in it: out of the darkness, God brings forth the dawn and gives light to the world.”
We often use the phrase, “it’s darkest before the dawn” to reassure people that, no matter how bleak things look, the situation will get better because it has to. But I think the Mishnah wants us to learn something a little different: that there can be no brightness without complete darkness. And that it is the nature of the universe that sometimes we have to experience darkness to appreciate light.
The truth is, life is trial and error, and sometimes we miss, and sometimes we slip, and sometimes we regress. That’s in the nature of the way God created us – and if we look at the stories of the Bible, it’s kind of the way God is too. God is passionate, sometimes loving, sometimes angry. God can reach out with a hand to caress or a fist to destroy. We are a physical manifestation of that. We are not angels, who are never challenged by our yetzer ha-ra. We cannot be sweet and good and productive all the time. I’d like to be. And sometimes I resent that I’m not. But in the Midrash, Rabbi Avina reminds us what God teaches: “The orb of the sun is only one of My servants, and when it goes forth into the world, its direct light is so intense that no creature can feast its eyes upon it.” We could never survive in a world made only of light.
And that brings us to Taylor’s third and final step in learning how to walk in the darkness: “Finally you ask darkness to teach you what you need to know.”
At this time of year especially, when we look at the darkness around us, we must consider whether that darkness is, at least partially, emanating from within. Whether it be anger or resentment, pride or stubbornness, inner darkness can never be hidden. It is always visible, whether we like it or not. Other people recognize it, whether we like it or not. So ask the darkness to teach you what you need to know about yourself.
There is so much we can learn from the darkness. One thing is that darkness is not monolithic, and that makes it less scary. As Taylor notes:
“I have been given the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season. When I go out on my porch at night, the moon never looks the same way twice. Some nights it is as round and bright as a headlight; other nights it is thinner than the sickle hanging in my garage. Some nights it is high in the sky, and other nights low over the mountains. Some nights it is altogether gone, leaving a vast web of stars that are brighter in its absence. All in all, the moon is a truer mirror for my soul than the sun that looks the same way every day. After I stopped thinking that all these fluctuations meant something was wrong with me, a great curiosity opened up: what would my life with God look like if I trusted this rhythm instead of opposing it?”
Think of these fluctuations, this rhythm, as the two urges within us. We cannot completely subdue the yetzer ha-rah. We must face it, acknowledge it, engage with it, and bring it back into balance with the yetzer ha-tov. But understand this: No matter what the nature of the inner darkness may be – no matter how deep-seated it may be, or how discomforting – we can never, ever, get back into balance all by ourselves. We must reach out for help, and accept the help that is offered, be it spiritual or therapeutic or personal or familial — even if it means groping around a while with the things that frighten us.
And remember this, too: It is this turning to face the inner darkness that drives us, during these days of awe, toward repentance … awareness of our shortcomings, regret for the past, and determination to change the future.
So don’t fear looking at the darkness. Take a good look at it. And consider all the times when the darkness has been so rich with promise.
Barbara Taylor reminds us of Abraham, childless still, scanning the night-time heavens, being told by God, “And I will make your seed multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give to your seed all these countries; and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” There was Jacob, with his night-time dream of holy messengers up and down the ladder leading to God; and his night-long wrestling that brought him physical injury but emotional healing. There was Jacob’s son Joseph and his dreams, that brought him out of prison and to the palace of Pharaoh. The exodus from Egypt took place under cover of God’s Divine darkness, and so did the revelation at Sinai. And none of this – none of this – could ever have happened in the light of day.
So, finally, remember this: Even in darkness we are never alone. Since that first sweep of the Divine hand, since that first Holy utterance, darkness is never a void. יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ, In darkness as well as light, there is always God, and there is always God’s congregation.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2014 Audrey R. Korotkin