For this year’s E-Torah cycle, we will approach the weekly portion as a springboard for a learning conversation. Each week will offer a brief commentary, followed by a prompt for discussion, which you can do with a family member or a friend—or on your own as a sort of internal dialogue/reflection.
For the wonders God has wrought
Toward the end of the Ashkenazi Passover Haggadah, we find a medieval liturgical poem entitled B’Chatzi Ha-lailah—And It Came to Pass at Midnight. In it, the poet, Yannai, recounts an array of miracles and redemptive acts that occurred in the middle of the night, including the exodus from Egypt, which is a harbinger of ultimate liberation for all of humankind. The message is clear: hope is often born of adversity, under the cloak of darkness.
This is certainly true in the life of the patriarch Jacob, who stands at the center of this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze. Almost all of the defining events of his life take place under the veil of darkness. He uses his father Isaac’s blindness to secure the blessing intended for his twin brother Esau, then encounters the Holy One on two fateful nights, first in his dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, and later in a nocturnal wrestling match that earns him the new name of Israel—One who struggles with God. In order to fulfill his destiny, Jacob must embrace the darkness as the vehicle for his transformation.
We tend to associate the dark with danger, fear, and suffering. Yet our portion reminds us that darkness is also the space where new life and unexpected possibilities most often incubate. As we settle into the coming winter, with its grey days and long nights, it is good to remember the promise of Jacob’s path, which the contemporary poet Wendell Barry eloquently describes in his poem, “To Know the Dark”:
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
What paths of growth might you anticipate in entering, or dwelling in, the darkness?