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Darkness and Light

(reposted from Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin's blog: http://blog.bjen.org/, March 22, 2012)

I had the privilege earlier this week of teaching at the Anacostia (DC) Watershed Stewards Academy. This version of the course is specifically designed for faith leaders. And I can tell you that there is no better place to study the first lines of the book of Genesis (describing the emergence of the world out of the primordial waters) than with a bunch of spirited, spiritual water activists.

We spoke about how, in the biblical view (as in other tales of creation), life begins in water. So it is with our modern story of evolution, life emerging from the seas. So it is with the story of each human being, each mammal and even each egg-born being. All emerge from a life-giving, life-protecting sac of liquid.

Water, we discussed, is the culture of all life and the world's great purifier. Fire is also a purifier, but it tends to destroy in the process. Though some things are purged and improved through fire, living things tend to perish in it. Water, though not without risk, cleanses and restores us, ridding us of our unwanted past and preparing us for a desired future. How awful, then, when we pollute the purifier.

But there was another insight that emerged in that discussion. About darkness. The scene of creation is set as follows:

When God began to create the heavens and the earth – the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and the spirit of God sweeping over the waters – 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. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning the first day.


Why, someone asked, was only the light good, and not the darkness too?

Perhaps, it was suggested, because light was a new creation, something novel and unknown, something that had to be tested out, tried on for size, taken out for a spin to see how it felt. And the answer was, it felt good.

Darkness, on the other hand, was already present, a known quantity, and a conundrum. Was it a product of creation or the absence of creation? Was it part of life or the essence of nothingness?

And once light came along, why was there still darkness? Light, after all, infuses and banishes darkness. Once light was created, darkness was vanquished, destroyed, chased from every corner of creation. The rabbis emphasize this, saying the primordial light of the first day – unlike the light of the sun of the fourth day – filled the universe from one end to the other. And yet the text speaks of God separating the light from the darkness, reining in the light, and reintroducing darkness into the world of creation.

Even if this darkness is not "good," the text seems to be saying, it does have a purpose. It is not the same as the darkness that came before. That darkness was chaos, enveloping everything. This darkness is contained, sharing time and space with light. That darkness hovered over all, defined everything. This darkness is tamed, has boundaries and is part of the breathing of the universe, the rhythm of life. It is a relief, a rest, the incubator of life.

Most of all, this darkness is different because it has a name given by God. This darkness is Night.

As part of the divine cosmic scheme, no matter how deep the Night, it ultimately gives way to the light of Day.

So we hope, at the dawn of spring.

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