Parshat HaShavua

Storing Up the Light

Roll into dark,
roll into light,
night becomes day,
day becomes night.

These words from Noam Katz’s setting of the evening prayer Maariv Aravim remind us of the cycles of nature, that we should never fear that darkness will endure forever, but neither should we expect light to shine eternally. The prayer sanctifies both extremes by saying “God creates day and night.”

Both states – illumination and its absence – can be holy, but I for one prefer light. True dark is dangerous, treacherous, concealing, good for sleeping and sulking but little else. In our world of electricity, darkness has been defanged, but lives on in metaphor as a symbol for all that is harmful and terrifying.

When parshat Miketz begins, Joseph languishes in the darkness of prison, and Pharoah dreams in the dark of night. Pharoah dreams two versions of the same event. First, seven sickly cows devour seven healthy cows, then seven scorched ears of grain swallow up seven healthy ears of grain. Joseph is freed from his cell to interpret the dreams, and he sees that there will be seven years of agricultural abundance followed by seven years of famine. Like day and night, agriculture has its cycles, more difficult to anticipate with precision, but inevitable nonetheless.

Good and bad, light and dark, abundance and scarcity all intertwine throughout our lives. It seems we must resign ourselves to the reality of the full spectrum of experience.

But the S’fat Emet, a Chassidic rabbi who lived in the late 19th century in Ger, Poland, resists calling the bad, dark, scarce conditions real. Commenting on Pharaoh’s dream, the S’fat Emet argues that the healthy cows and the healthy ears of grain are not destroyed, but only swallowed up by the sickly cows and scorched ears. They still remain, but are obscured. The true dichotomy in our experiences lies not between light and dark, or good and bad, but rather between divine presence and its hiddenness.

All is One, in Chassidic thinking, and that Oneness is Radiant Goodness. So why bad and dark moments, which are undeniable in the pain they cause? Those are the moments when God’s presence is hidden, when we cannot access the holiness that flows through every aspect of creation. Darkness has no independent reality, but reflects the veiling of divine light – much like in a physical sense, darkness is not a thing, but simply the absence of light.

The S’fat Emet is not concerned here with the question of why God becomes hidden in the first place. Instead, he ponders what lesson we can learn from Pharoah’s dream to help us through the inevitable transitions from brighter times to darker times and back again. He suggests that we should “prepare ourselves well in days of plenty, in those times when holiness is apparent to us. We should fix that radiance firmly in our hearts, so it may be there for the bad times when holiness is hidden” (1:182, translated by Arthur Green).

When you have particularly sweet moments, when you have personal or professional successes, when you connect deeply to a loved one, when you attain new insight, when you stumble upon joy, fix that radiance firmly in your heart so that we can sustain ourselves and each other in times of darkness.

May the candlelight of Chanukkah and Shabbat help you remember and perceive those radiant moments of holiness, goodness, and abundance.