To Know the Dark
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, Collected Poems, p. 107)
[Abraham considers the stars, postcard by Ephraim Moses Lilien]
Darkness. It gets a bad rap. In Western tradition it symbolizes chaos, ignorance, dread, danger, absence, evil, and spiritual emptiness. But this is hardly the whole story. After all, existence germinates and incubates in darkness. As Genesis reveals, darkness is where life begins (1:2). Darkness is more than mere absence, it too is one of God's positive creations:
The rabbis taught: “Three things were made before the creation of our world: Water, Wind, and Fire. Water birthed darkness, Fire birthed light, and Wind birthed wisdom” (Midrash Sh’mot Rabbah 15:22).
Torah too, sometimes likes to use darkness as an antipode and as a contrast to life and good. It is the lurking place of evil spirits (Ps. 91:8; Pas. 111a-b). Darkness is one of the ten plagues, signifying divine judgement. Yet that same darkness is also the matrix of redemption:
"God brought you out of Egypt by night" (Deut 16:1). The night is indeed the time of redemption, as the people hold fast to the words of their new master and stage a tableau of release. The tension inherent in such a scene is palpable, particularly if one bears in mind the shrieks that rend Egypt and that are heard from the interiors of Israelite houses, set in among the houses of death. To leave by day, "with hands high": this is the stuff of epic. But the night is another country." (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus [New York: Doubleday, 2002],p. 165)
This dual, even paradoxical, role it serves in the Exodus points to Judaism's more nuanced understanding of darkness. As often as it is the antithesis of light, it is as often seen as complementary, as evidenced in the evening prayer, Maariv Aravim.
Kabbalah goes even further, teaching that just as the body is a garment for the soul, darkness is a garment for light. And just as the body is an expression of the divine as much as the soul (Iggeret ha-Kodesh I), so too darkness is as much representative of God as is Light. In the words of the Zohar:
“And God said, ‘Let us make the human in our image, according to our likeness’ (Genesis 1:26). ‘In our image – this means Light; According to our likeness – this means Darkness,’ for Darkness is the garment of the Light no less than the body is the garment of the soul” (Zohar, Vol. 1, folio 22b).
Gershon Winkler, writing of the darkness that accompanies winter, teaches:
"The gift of darkness is its veiling of light. While light is good in that it brings us clarity, enables us to experience our environment and be inspired by color and shape, it can also at times detract from our inner selves....The balance that darkness then brings to light is to dim the distractions that light enables so that we are forced to return deeper and deeper into ourselves."
That is why every night when a Jew prays, he or she blesses the darkness:
Praised are You, Adonai, Who makes the evening fall.
See entries Darkness; Dreams; Midnight; Night; Sleep in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.