Light and Darkness by Ian Layton – Oct 2, 2021

The Torah portion, or parashah, for today is B’reishit, which means “In the beginning of.” B’reishit focuses on God creating the cosmos, the world, and the living beings that come to inhabit it. B’reishit sets the stage for the drama that unfolds throughout the Torah.

Today, I specifically read B’reishit chapter 1, verses 1 through 13, which follows God through the first three days of creation. Richard Elliot Friedman, a modern commentator born here in Rochester, notes that “creation is the act of separating a thing from the rest of matter and then giving it its name.” In these first three days this is what happens, as God creates the heavens and earth, and encounters, “tohu vavohu,” a shapeless and formless mass of watery matter cloaked in darkness. From this unformed and chaotic mass, God creates light, night and day, the skies, the earth and the ocean, trees and plants, and seeds to ensure that creation can continue forward.

One specific aspect of this portion that stands out to me is the interplay, contrast, and apparent duality between light and dark. Many commentators have concluded that light is most pleasing to God. The new Jewish Publication Society Bible translates verse 3 through 4 as “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness.”  In these two verses, God creates light and notes that it is good to God. Darkness on the other hand, is created in a different way. Yet, God divides light from dark, and gives them both their respective names: Day and night. What if God is pleased not just by light, but by both light and dark? I imagine God seeing darkness, and feeling inspired to create light to complete the whole, rather than just favoring light. I want to understand darkness more.

Our first encounter with darkness comes in verse 2. “The earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep…” Darkness here is coupled with “the deep,” which both traditional and modern commentators commonly associate with water.

Traditional commentators disagree about the nature of the darkness referenced in verse 2. Nahmanides concludes that the darkness referenced in verse 2 is actually connected to fire, while the darkness which God separates from the light in verse 4 is merely the absence of light. Kimhi agrees with Nahmanides that the “darkness” referenced in verse 4 is the absence of light. Rashbam appears to agree with Nahmanides and Kimhi, by noting that darkness points to absence, and that God brings light forth as a correction to darkness. The tone shared by these commentators paints darkness as either absence, or a problem to be corrected.

In contrast, Bekhor Shor asserts that darkness is indeed a creation of God, citing the Book of Isaiah 45:7 where God declares “I form light and create darkness.” While many traditional commentators certainly wrestled with the nature of darkness, and concluded that darkness points to absence, I am most compelled by the conclusions that darkness, just like light, is a creation of God. Even more interesting to me is the connection that Nahmanides makes between darkness and fire. The best-known example of fire imagery is when Moses encounters God in the burning bush. God here is directly connected to fire. We recognize that fire is a potent energy that is neither inherently good or bad. These days, uncontrolled wildfires routinely lead to catastrophe for many communities. Yet, fire also provides heat, warmth, and energy, which are vital to our lives today. Without fire, our lives would be significantly less dynamic.

Modern orthodox and conservative commentators feel comfortable assigning negative imagery to darkness. Etz Hayim, a Conservative commentary, notes that “ in the bible darkness is often a symbol of evil, misfortune, death, or oblivion.” The commentary contrasts darkness with light, which “serves as a symbol of life, joy, justice and deliverance.” Similarly, a modern orthodox commentary aligns darkness with the absence of light.

These conclusions about darkness and its symbolic meaning leave me feeling deeply uncomfortable and unsatisfied. Looking at light and dark as respectively good and bad is a dualistic way of viewing two necessary elements of creation. Using a non-dualistic framework, both light and dark make up the whole, and are not necessarily as distinct and separate as these commentators perceive them.

This leads me to ask: What are the implications of this symbolism on our material, human world in history and our present day? How has the symbolism of the light and dark duality been weaponized in our world? We see how the belief that lightness is better than darkness gets translated into an ideology that claims that people who are racialized as white are superior to those who are racialized into non-White categories. Ideologies of white supremacy rooted in European Christianity flourished and set forth the violence of colonization, chattel slavery, and many other forms of domination and exploitation. White supremacy holds that the White race, and all who are accepted as a part of it, are superior, civilized and fully human. On the other hand, peoples assigned to non-White categories are viewed and treated as depraved, evil, uncivilized, and inhuman.

The parallels with the “light and dark” duality are clear. White supremacy, racial logic, and the people and systems that maintain these structures of white racial superiority have been upheld by harmful interpretations of the Bible, which have ignored the divine origin of both light and dark. Additionally, in western society imagery associated with darkness is often connected to the feminine. The gender violence of patriarchy has only been strengthened and reinforced by this imagery in societies that are influenced by the Bible and its interpreters.

This dualism of light and dark continues to have dire consequences in our own time and needs to be challenged. We must look at it, instead, from a lens of non-dualism.

No matter the origin of darkness, the opening words of the Book of Genesis portray darkness as a distinct, foundational element of the cosmos. Because God separated and named darkness, it holds significance. It cannot simply be the absence of light. Light does not exist without darkness. The moon does not shine without the dark canvas it illuminates. Rather than view light and dark as two antagonistic poles, it is more useful and truthful to view them as having a cyclical relationship. Farmers around the world burn their fields to make way for new crops, and new life. Creation emerges out of energetic chaos, just as light emerges from dark. Richard Elliot Friedman explains that both light and dark were essential to the creation of time and space, which lays the groundwork for creation itself. Without time and space, we would have no creation, and no Shabbat; no holy day of rest and renewal.

If we look at light and dark in a non-dualistic way, we pay special attention to the blending of the two. Dawn and dusk for example, are moments of great beauty. Shabbat, and many of the most important Jewish holidays begin at dusk, and end the following dusk. Without darkness, we would have no reference points for these holy times. There is a Midrash that describes the Torah being created with black and white fire. The black fire makes up the letters of the words, and the white fire holds the space between them. Together they create Torah. Here, fire itself contains both light and dark.

On a personal level, I feel uniquely alive and awake in darkness. When it comes to the seasons, I associate darkness with winter. I find myself spending more intimate moments with loved ones during dark nights that force us inside. There is a need to create and maintain warmth, and we spend more time facing and loving each other. Dark and still nights provide me with important times of solace, meditation, renewal, and joy. Additionally, sun falling below the horizon signals the possibility of a long night of dancing ahead. Dancing to the rhythm of repetitive kick drums, and melodic chords is made possible by the night. These long, dark, energetic nights build up to a refreshing dawn sky. I won’t necessarily conflate sadness with darkness, but I do find sadness to contain darkness, and to be an incredibly regenerative emotion for me. When I allow and acknowledge sadness, room for great clarity and newness emerges within me. Sadness itself is not the problem, because usually sadness is trying to tell me something important. I cannot experience joy without sadness. Light and dark alike exist in all of my emotions and experiences. Human life emerges from the darkness of the womb, just as the dark soil cradles the seeds of plants to come

Seeing light and dark in this non-dualistic way is more than just a personal reflection. What would it mean for our world if we embraced non-dualism? Holding light and dark as equally complex and necessary as God’s creation means that no part of creation holds less value than another. White supremacy, patriarchy, and all other ideologies that devalue human life cannot exist in a world that holds all creation as equally sacred. To dismantle these exploitative and violent systems is to honor creation and end human made suffering. In breaking down these systems together, we build a world guided by principles of justice and liberation. This is our most sacred task.


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