Darkness in Creation, Revelation and Redemption
When I focus on my own essential nature, or when I experience the sacred, most often what I find is darkness. This sometimes feels at odds with the commonly expressed ideas that the paths to holiness are to be found by ascending into the light. Certainly, light is an evocative metaphor for that which gives life, for the flow of divine presence. On one level, dark can be seen as that which blocks the flow of light. This can be limiting or protective, depending on the setting. But there is another level to the metaphor of darkness. That is the darkness beyond the light. Darkness is the place where all separation dissolves into oneness. It is the depths, the womb, the soil where the seed sprouts, the soothing shade, the night in which our bodies grow and our minds make long-term memory. Darkness is source, essence, emptiness, mystery.
Our minds tend to associate darkness with the earth, for a number of reasons. The sky can be dark or light, but the earth has no light of its own, unless we are aware of the molten core that can show its fiery light when it erupts. Under the surface of the earth it is always dark, as it is under the surface of anything. So, also we find that darkness is associated with depths, while light is associated with heights.
The hiddenness of women’s genitals, the dark of the womb from which we all come forth, and the association between women and earth, have all led to a metaphorical connection between women and the dark. And for purely physical reasons, dark skin and dark hair are associated with the darkness.
When we discount the power of the darkness, we risk devaluing all that we associate with it—dark skin, women, and the earth itself. And we lose the pathways that seek holiness through deepening into the dark.
There are so many levels and nuances of the sacred dark, but today I have chosen to address one aspect of the issue, due to how short our time is. That is the idea that sacred darkness is not just one way of conceptualizing the holy, but rather it is basic to the foundational concepts of Judaism—creation, revelation, and redemption.
In Genesis, before Hashem said “let there be light” there was “darkness over the face of the deep, the spirit of G-d brooding over the face of the water” (Gen.1:2). So we learn not only that darkness pre-existed what we think of as creation, but also that the spirit of G-d is being paralleled, if not equated, with that darkness. At the very least, darkness is more essential than light. The Bahir comments on Isaiah45: 7, “I form light and create darkness”, explaining that light was formed by making it, whereas in the case of darkness, “there was no making, only separating and setting aside. It is for this reason that the term ‘created’ (bara) is used.” (The Bahir 13)
The creation story starts by saying “B’reishit bara elokim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz”, a strange grammatical structure saying something like “With a beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.” Rashi and the Zohar (and Targum Yonatan) interpret this beginning to be wisdom—Chokhmah. That is, with wisdom, G-d created. The Hebrew word for wisdom, Chokhmah, is etymologically and historically related to the Egyptian deity Hekh, and through her, to Hecate, the ancient Greek dark moon goddess of wisdom, personified as a crone, standing at the crossroads, midwifing everyone into life and death. The book of Proverbs gives a vision with which to imagine Chokhmah, also personified as a female. She says “It is Wisdom calling, Understanding raising her voice. She takes her stand at the topmost heights, by the wayside, at the crossroads…Hashem created me at the beginning of His path (reishit darko)…there was still no deep when I was brought forth…before the hills I was birthed.” (Proverbs 8:1-25) Here we are given a vision of dark female wisdom, midwifing the world into being.
But our tradition goes even further than that. In the kabbalisitc tree of life, chokhmah is near the source of the tree, but not there yet. The root of all, beyond all form, is the Ein Sof, without end. Jewish mystical tradition associates the dark depths as the source of all life, the Ein Sof. The Zohar (Vol.II, 42b-43a) imagines the Ein Sof as the source of a spring, which flows into an ocean, from which rivers flow that are the sefirot, the channels for the flow of divine into the world. In this picture, the initial emanator of all creation is the dark point at the depths of the deepest spring.
The Slonimer Rebbe, Shalom Noach Barzovsky, author of Netivot Shalom, points out that both our moments of redemption occurred at night. Pharaoh “arose in the night” (Ex.12:30) and told us to leave. So, the Exodus was at night. And, almost a week later the Reed Sea was split during the night. Not only was it at night, but we were assisted in the process by the pillar of cloud: “Thus, there was a pillar of cloud with the darkness and it cast a spell upon the night” (Ex.14:20). (I am indebted to the JPS Tanakh for this understanding of the root a-r-r, to cast a spell, rather than to light up). Netivot Shalom explains this through a commentary on the verse from Psalms, “To tell in the morning of your loving-kindness, and your faithfulness in the nights” (Ps.92:3). He explains that we merit loving-kindness in the day, which he parallels with redemption, due to our faithfulness during the night, which he equates with exile. The reason, he says, that the verse from Psalms says nights in the plural is to remind us of the two nights of our redemption, the first and seventh nights of Pesach. Here he is dealing with what I consider a more surface level of darkness, or night; that is the darkness that is a blocking of the light, as opposed to the deeper level of darkness, which is beyond the light. Both are paths to redemption, in different ways.
The Zohar shows us how the deeper level of dark is redemptive. The Talmudic sage, Resh Lakish, comments on another verse in Psalms (Ps. 42:9) “By day Hashem commands His loving-kindness, and in the night Her song is with me”. (Depending on how one reads the k’rei/ketiv in this verse, one could read ‘Her song’ or ‘His song’.) He says that “Whoever engages in Torah at night, the Holy Blessed One draws over that one a cord of loving-kindness”. (Hagigah 12b) The Zohar (Vol.II, 148b-149a) explains that this cord of loving-kindness comes from the original light of creation that was hidden away for the righteous to receive at the end of days, that is, at the time of the final redemption. But, earlier on, (Vol. I, 31b-32a) the Zohar explains that that original light of creation “issued from the darkness which was carved out by the strokes of the Hidden One”. Loving-kindness, and redemption in general, then, have their immediate cause in the challenging darkness, but their ultimate root in the essential dark.
Redemptive miracles like the Exodus and the splitting of the Reed Sea are in themselves moments of revelation as well. As the Mechilta says, a handmaid at the Sea saw more that Ezekiel and all the other prophets. (Mechilta, Parshat Shira, parsha 3) But our peak moment of revelation was the transmission of the Torah at Mount Sinai. When the moment came for us to receive the Torah, the people became afraid. The Torah tells us “So the people stood at a distance, and Moshe came near the thick darkness (arafel) where G-d was.” (Ex.20:18) Why was the Torah given in the darkness? Why was the divine presence there? Philo wrote “Moses entered into the darkness where G-d was, that is into the unseen, invisible, incorporeal and archetypical essence of existing things. Thus he beheld what is hidden from the sight of the mortal nature, and in himself and his life displayed for all to see, he has set before us, like some well-wrought picture, a piece of work beautiful and godlike, a model for those who are willing to copy it. Happy are they who imprint that image in their souls.” (Philo, The Life of Moses, I, 158, quoted in Three Jewish Philosophers) That is, the Torah was given in the darkness because it gave Moses the experience he needed to transmit the Torah, which is itself a pathway back to that essential darkness. Almost two thousand years later, the Kotsker Rebbe, Menachem Mendel, comments in his book Emet V’Emunah (quoted in P’ninei haTorah) that the arafel is the ikkar, the essence, and the pnimiut, the innermost part, and that is why Hashem was there.
This may start to explain to us about Moses’ experience of receiving the Torah, but what about the rest of us? Shortly before the 10 commandments are given, Exodus 19:17 states “And they stood in the underside of the mountain”. The Talmud (Shabbat 88a), tells the following midrash: “R. Avdimi bar Hama said: The verse implies that the Holy One overturned the mountain upon them, like an inverted casket, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, it is well, if not, your grave will be right here.” Commenting on this midrash, the Pesikta de Rav Kahana (Piska 7) says, “Israel accepted the Torah that was given out of darkness”. The Torah was given out of darkness, that is, the darkness over where they were standing because the mountain was being held over their heads. So, at the time of the giving of the Torah, the people as well as Moshe were having an experience of darkness.
Later, the people had the experience of thick darkness (arafel) in the Temple that Moshe had at Sinai. When King Solomon is building the Temple, he states (1Kings 8:12, and again in 1Chronicles 6:1) “G-d has chosen to dwell in the thick darkness— ba’ arafel”.
So we see that creation is birthed out of the darkness, from which redemption draws its source. And revelation of the divine presence comes from entering the thick darkness.
Genesis Rabbah (19:7) tells us that originally the essence of the Shechinah was in the depths. Through the wrongdoings of humans She departed higher and higher, further and further away from us. And through the righteous acts of humans She was drawn back down from level to level, until Moshe brought Her down below. May we all merit to find Her again and again in the deepest places.