Although the winter solstice is behind us and the days are slowly getting a bit longer, we in the Northern Hemisphere, are still in the dark time of the year. Darkness – choshech– is a common image in Torah and in our liturgy. In fact, in Torah there are 51 references for the word choshech alone. Let’s look at one in Torah and one in our liturgy.
We have just begun to read the book of Shemot. This week we read in Parashat Bo, about the final plagues brought by God upon Egypt. The ninth one is particularly apropos:
:וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה נְטֵ֤ה יָֽדְךָ֙ עַל־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וִ֥יהִי חֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם וְיָמֵ֖שׁ חֹֽשֶׁךְ
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.”
What does this mean? – וְיָמֵ֖שׁ חֹֽשֶׁךְ – From the shoresh meesheish – to feel
The Etz Chayim and Stone chumashim interpret this as a darkness that is tangible; The Plaut Torah interprets it as a darkness that can be touched; Elliot Friedman in his Commentary on Torah, says one can feel the darkness. These two words also interested the Biblical commentators. Here are just a few: Rashi said it refers to the increasing darkness of the plague; Ramban explained it is not just absence of light but an opaque fog; Ibn Ezra wrote that it meant extreme darkness and; Onkelos explained that when the darkness of night departs, then a darkness will descend upon the land of Egypt.
What is this tangible darkness; a darkness that can be felt; a darkness that can be touched? What is meant by a darkness that continues to grow in darkness, in intensity? This is not ordinary darkness. It is beyond physical darkness. Maybe the darkness we read about is not the darkness of nighttime but rather, the darkness of the soul; a darkness of despair when we feel we cannot change things. The darkness that accompanies hopelessness or fear is a tangible darkness for those who are immobilized by it. We know that grief, illness, disappointment, loss, fear for the future, and a sense of abandonment can cause people to plummet into darkness.
The Egyptians experienced intense darkness – both physical darkness, and darkness of the soul. When we struggle, we enter the dark night of the soul with sadness, and the sense of feeling alone. Yet God was with the Hebrew slaves who had light in the plague of darkness upon Egypt despite their yearning but fear to leave Egypt in safety. As humans who are vulnerable at times, we tend to feel more comfortable in the light of day in which we can see our way and lead others. It is the more comforting time in the natural order of things. Even our services have unique prayers specific to the time of day during which they take place.
Let us consider an example in our liturgy. In the Yotzer Ohr prayer, we praise God for the excellence, goodness, and compassion in which the earth and all who dwell on it are created anew each day:
Uv’tuvo m’chadeish b’chol yom tamid maaseih v’reishit
In your goodness, you daily renew creation
This is not a continuation of the original act of creation but rather, a daily re-creation, a renewal, something that we often take for granted. Yet there is also a reference to darkness:
Yotzeir ohr uvorei choshech
Creator of light and darkness
In order to have the light of day, we also experience the dark of night. We all have difficult times and “dark” feelings. Sometimes, we are forced to face the dark, at times a seemingly endless night. It is not easy to go through the dark, but at times, we need to explore it. At times, it is a frightening and lonely journey, but with proper help in healing, we can ultimately reach the light. Just as we need darkness and nighttime to eventually have day and its associated light, sometimes, we need to emotionally and spiritually go through the dark to reach the light. Sadness, helplessness, grief, illness, or loss can cause us to descend deep into that dark night. It is on occasion necessary but scary and it can be hard to feel God’s presence at times. Sometimes we have to do most of it alone, but with some help and good fortune, we can have the opportunity to feel someone walking beside us with a hand to reach out for in that darkness.
We read in the Babylonian Talmud, B’rakhot 9b “how do we know when the night ends and the new day begins?” The answer that the Rabbis tell us is: when one can see his friend from four feet away and recognize him. This does not mean only being able to see a friend at night when it is dark outside, but rather to recognize in our own difficult time in our own darkness that there are people who can help us. When we feel sad, we need to find the strength to recognize that. By the same token, it is up to each of us to be that friend in someone else’s darkness so that the other person can recognize us as someone to support them. This is a truly a sign of healing. Healing occurs in the context of community. The Exodus ultimately provided community for the Israelites with structure, identity, and hope.