Friday, November 13, 2015

To Know the Dark (Portion Vayetze)

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark.  Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
                                    -Wendell Berry

Night is like a foreign country.  Under the cloak of darkness, even one’s own neighborhood and home can feel strange, mysterious and frightening.  Boundaries are blurred, sounds are magnified, the unexpected waits around every corner.  This can be both terrifying and exhilarating—and sometimes both at the same time. 

Talmud teaches that Jacob established the Jewish tradition of praying at night, in this week’s portion, Vayetze.  As the teaching goes, Abraham encountered God in the clarity of morning, Isaac met the Divine in the peace of evening.  Jacob, the Godwrestler, experiences the Creator in the dark of night.  That is certainly the case in Vayetze as he dreams of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels going up and down on it.  Upon awakening, Jacob expresses the awe and mystery of the night-encounter: “Surely God is in the place—and I did not know it!”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests it is no accident that Jacob—later known as Israel—is not just our forefather but also our namesake.  He notes: “We, the people of Israel, are named after Jacob and not the other patriarchs because Jacob was open to these encounters with God in the darkness, at the times of his greatest difficulties. The opening words of the Parsha are ‘Vayetze Yaakov’ – ‘and Jacob departed.’  He is running away, afraid, preoccupied, struggling, and that is where he encounters God. It is wonderful to encounter God like Abraham did - in bright and peaceful light of day. Perhaps it is much more complicated and takes more awareness to encounter God in the darkness of despair and suffering.”

 We live in a nation that considers the pursuit of happiness as part of its creed—and it is surely a good thing to live joyfully.  But our tradition reminds us that God is found in the darkness, too, and a life that denies the strangeness—and even the struggles—of night as a source of the Divine is attenuated and incomplete.  This week, as Thanksgiving approaches, do not forget to give thanks for all that brings you pleasure and delight.  But consider, too, the possibility that God may be found in the darkness, which, as Wendell Berry notes, blooms and sings in its own mysterious ways.

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