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Who Needs Darkness?

Who Needs Darkness?



Darkness seems to be the default position, the regular state of things... Why does our Creator plunk us down into despair, misery and sorrow and then ask us to struggle toward the light? Why not, out of love for his creations, just put us in the light in the first place?


From G‑d's perspective, light is the default. Darkness only came later, as He created a world. From within that world which He created, however, it is darkness that takes the dominant, default position, and light has to play new kid on the block. That's certainly how we experience life: We enter a world of suffering and confusion, and battle our entire lives to bring some kindness and harmony into it.

Why did He make the world that way? There are several ways to answer—all depending on what you see as the ultimate purpose of creation.

Rabbi Chaim Vital writes that G‑d created the world because He is good and He who is good naturally does good. So what is good about darkness?

One way to answer is that if you want to provide human beings real satisfaction, it's not going to served at the beach chairs by the swimming pool. The ultimate good is when you go out and sweat and achieve it for yourself. Darkness provides the backdrop for your achievements, the challenges with which you struggle. You work hard, and you have the satisfaction of having earned it yourself. As the Talmud puts it, "A person would rather one portion of his own over nine that belong to someone else."

And if you will say, yes, it's true that human beings only appreciate something good when they achieve it themselves. But why does it have to be that way? He could have, after all, created us differently, so that we would enjoy free handouts rather than well-deserved earnings.

The best He could offer us is a partnership with Him

So we answer that there is a reason G‑d gave us this nature: Out of His ultimate goodness, He wanted to provide us the highest, most ultimate good. What's the highest state there is? To be the Creator. So the highest thing He could grant us is to be His partner in creating your world. You work your way up, introducing light to a place of darkness, transforming your world from a mundane "place that's just here because it's here" into a divine place, a place where every breath sings to the One that breathes it. You finish off the job that G‑d began and thereby earn a partnership in the act of creating it. That's true good.

Darkness Sheds Its Secret

This explanation works nicely—if you accept the idea of darkness as a background for light. But could it be that darkness has an end in itself?

You see, darkness is only darkness in a superficial sense. To G‑d, "even darkness does not darken" and "nighttime shines like day." Light (revelation) and dark (concealment) are simply two modalities by which He discloses Himself to His creations. It is just that certain things can be said explicitly and other matters can only be disclosed by withholding them and allowing the listener to unravel them on his own.

Take a good poem, for example. As soon as the poet explains what he meant, the meaning is gone. Similarly, a good novel: The most meaningful things are said by being not said. The innuendo of silence can speak that which words cannot contain.

That is the purpose of the struggle with darkness—to disclose the secrets that darkness holds, secrets far deeper than those held by the light. In the language of Lurianic Kabbalah, darkness at its essence is also a form of light—"rebounding light," so called because it does not emanate directly from the Creator, but is disclosed from within, a product of the labor of the created.

Think of the teacher who ponders a subject for years before lecturing upon it to his students. Yet then, in the midst of the lecture, a clarity of insight strikes him that he never before experienced. Even more so as his students present their questions and difficulties with his thesis. At times it is the simplest student who presents the greatest challenge—and extrudes the greatest depth of thought from the teacher's mind. As deep as the content of the lecture may have been, there is yet greater depth that is plumbed by those challenges to the lecture.

And beyond that, yet a more profound depth: Somehow, the student who knows his teacher well is able to find in the nuances of language, in the mode of presentation, in the oblique implications and ellipses of thought, a window into the most hidden recesses of the teacher's subconscious mind, revealing there insights of which even the teacher himself was unaware. (In the language of Torah scholars, this method is called diyuk—the process of understanding the underlying intent of the words through semantic analysis.)

The struggles each of us endures with the darkness of our world parallel the challenges of the students and their forays deep into the teacher's mind. Light is information that is immediately intelligible: There is a G‑d and He is running the universe. Darkness is also information, but of a much deeper sort; a knowledge that transcends knowing, decrypted only by those who engage the darkness face-to-face.

At the Essence

Ultimately, this answer is also insufficient. G‑d is understood to be omnipotent. Obviously, He is also capable of revealing the hidden without our struggle. Obviously, as well, He can give us the ultimate good without the darkness. Why then does He set it up this way?

The answer goes back to the classic statement of one Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Yosef of Castille, who was asked the question, "Why did G‑d make the world when He did?" He answered (to paraphrase), "At the beginning of all things, there is no reason. For if there would be a reason to the beginning, it would no longer be the beginning—the reason would be the beginning. And then you would ask me, "What is the reason for that reason?"—yet another beginning!"1

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi said it in different words. He cited the Midrash that G‑d created a world because "He desired a dwelling in a mundane world." Why? Because He so desired. Not because anything was lacking, not because anything will be gained. He desired because He decided to desire. When dealing with a raw desire there are no questions.

Wherever you find that purpose unfolding, you will find Him in all His essence

So what does He desire? That a place of darkness be transformed into light. The Creator states it at the outset: "Let there be light!"—better translated as, "It should become light!" He chose that and He invested, so to speak, His entire being in that goal. Not only the entire cosmic structure is designed around that objective, but at every step along the way, wherever you find that purpose unfolding, you will find Him in all His essence, enwrapped within the veils of darkness, "sitting within the supernal hiddenness, in the shade of the Al-mighty He dwells."2

Lots more to discuss here—there's so much written on the topic, particularly in Chassidus Chabad. For a touch more, please read What is the Purpose of Existence?

Cited in Shelah, Bet Hashem, 12
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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ruth housman marshfield hills, MA April 14, 2010

at SEE/at SEA We all know that there's a SOURCE to all water and it flows from the Source, to and from, and we all know about tributaries. Language itself contains an important clue to what we're all doing here, And sure, we're not the River and yet we are, because I would say, even our bodies containing as they do, so much water, and blood is also about water, well we are infused with water. And I could say that the words in motion could aurally be also in MOCEAN as the name of a local boat here in Marshfield.

Now who wrote this script. How is it we can all use this clay so beautifully, so alchemically, and I am saying, something deep. Reflection itself is a water word.

Sure, get over it, but we can't, because a discussion involving the pain and suffering in life, does inevitably and constantly involve us all.

I too, like to forget, and like Morpheus,that Greek God of sleep, we all need to give things a rest and simply "be". Reply

Enzo +, + April 13, 2010

for Pete great comment Pete... Reply

Hall of Remembrance February 10, 2010

To Shoegazer Wow! You and I sound like very, very different kinds of beings. I love rivers; I love bathing in rivers; but I am not a river. I am a conscious, living and perceiving being who will search out every interesting book I can find. and who will spend hours thinking about what I have just read.

A river just flows, but an evolving being falls down and gets up, falls down and gets up, fall down and gets up, etc. until finally some sort of metaphorical walking and moving is achieved that can be sustained over longer and longer periods of time.

Martin Buber said, 'Evolution proceeds by stumbling'. I like that. I am not able to just be - smoothly - with no interruption- and I don't feel embarrassed about that any more.

Perhaps the person you are talking to should just move on and let go of what he has captured and won't let go? It might be the right thing to do for him. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma February 10, 2010

because We are the People of The Book! A river runs through it... out of Eden... (the Zohar)

And yes, as flow is to flower, so it is, we all are going with that flow, but we are gifted to dialogue with each other and it's in that sharing that we keep seeing the river, the River, our lives, in an ever increasing light.

Shoe gazer, this story is about sole/soul.

Over and... OUT, at least, for me. Reply

Shoegazer Berlin February 9, 2010

does a river stop to look at itself, to study books? it just flows Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, MA February 9, 2010

Your Poem I think it's quite wonderful. Poetry like this, seems to me a pure distillation of what we're struggling to put into so many, many words.
It has the purity we're reaching for.

Beauty IS truth. Reply

Lawrence Hall February 8, 2010

Reply Hi Ruth -

Yes, I did write this. Reply

Ruth Housman marshfield hills, ma February 7, 2010

darkness as a kind of sealing this is a beautiful poem (above) and I wonder, did you write this?

I do believe in darkness visible, the title of a book by William Styron, about his deep depression and how he came out of this, into the light.

Darkness is a form of concealment, and as you write, a kind of sealing as in The Sign and the Seal, the covenant itself.

I think in deep metaphoric and true ways, for us all, it's a journey of soul, and we do enter and penetrate the darkness, that is so evident in myriad ways in our lives, and in those we intersect with, along this path, which is deeply, also a puzzle, to connect.

there is a picture here and we see more of the picture, individually and collectively as the pieces do gather, and I do believe we are entering into the light each and every time we perform a mitzvot, little or big, it's all the same.

so, in the bringing of light, and what's dark, in writings too, into the light, by shining light again and again on passages and on our passages, we learn, deeply. Reply

Lawrence Hall February 7, 2010

Hey, Well The darkness can be a kind of sealing
a sealing to keep something preserved
to keep it from being stolen or
mishandled too much
to create an alone place
for learning and growing and sowing

darkness, darkness like madness
remember that G-d told David
that he would someday know the reason
for the existence of insanity

The wind through the pipes blew
I know you heard that too
you, you and your pen and notebook
sitting there next to me Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma February 1, 2010

light and dark Opposites do fold together to make a whole, and you cannot divorce light from darkness, as they do exist together. As in the oy in joy. We have to have them both, and without the one, we cannot have the other, Life exists with profound paradox at every level.

you cannot know one without the other, and this is the way the world was constructed, deeply, in such bipolarity. In light we cast a shadow, and the lessons of physics and science do mirror what we know from our own lives. There are profound metaphoric connects running up and down, through the layers of our lives.

In world is WORD and yes, God created both to work together and for us to bring in the light, but they do co-exist in paradoxical ways, perhaps, but still we have to have both. And it's what we do, transmuting darkness into light and back again.

Positive is always stronger than negative for sure. If you look at the mathematical symbol + you will see this truth: the symbol for negative is within. Reply

Brandyn Ashing Crestview, FL February 1, 2010

Alone in a dark place Sometimes I wonder if were all like G-d was in the beginning... Alone in a dark place... surrounded by a sea of strangers... What did G-d really mean when he said he would make Abrahom's children like the sand of the sea? Reply

shmendrix mendela cohenofski January 31, 2010

Christine coffs harbour - you got more brains than everyone else Reply

christine January 31, 2010

In Genesis, G-d separated Light from darkness and His Word cannot be broken.
He showed His authority over Adam by putting him to sleep, confirming His authority over the one to whom He'd given limited authority in the earth. We sleep and submit to our human condition, which is also submitting to G-d's Holiness and Absolute Authority. Light and dark are not both sides of the one coin. Light wins, darkness has already lost. We wait for that time when G-d Himself will be all the Light we need. Reply

ruth Housman marshfield hills, MA January 31, 2010

darkness I understand the perspective that in equating darkness with pain and sorrow, that yes, we don't want this, and so we do what we can for each other, and that's what we "do" and I think the mandate for us all. But we cannot have light without darkness, and yes, to light the candles, to light a way, through darkness is how we take others by the hand. It's our "way" and the path in empathy is just, this. I cannot imagine being without moon and stars in that velvet darkness of night, and neither can I imagine knowing what we do, about love, without experiencing its opposite. This doesn't condone it, but surely, as the Buddhists say, suffering is part of life. I saw, in the darkest cave in Spain, when the lights were shut down, even then, light. So I know that in the dark there is always, light, and we can find it, and we do.

A great paradox the messianic hope. The world must then, change, profoundly. Some say, there is such perfection now in, imperfection. A perfect world? Reply

Shirah Bracha January 31, 2010

Who needs darkness? G-d created darkness with many sides and purposes to it. Most times the answers to "profound" questions are found right in front of us in our obedience to the Torah!
Here's an example that we can all relate to:
Darkness ironically brings the wonderful benefit--of motivating Rest. How could we light the Shabbat candels at dusk and continue into our services while enjoying the lit candels of Shabbat observance --WITHOUT-- the Darkness? G-d's creation is GOOD. The Darkness brings a good Shabbos REST and sleep!
Here's another example:
Proverbs says that G-d can make darkness to work for His own ends. The soverignty of God is in the Light and Darkness is His tool--is in-- HIS Hands. And we can be glad! Reply

christine coffs harbour January 31, 2010

light and dark Darkness has no place with light. I can well do without terminal cancer in order to enjoy good health; I can do without violence and strife in order to appreciate peace. I don't need to see children hurt and molested in order to appreciate a happy and safe home. Light dominates darkness and always will. Light a match in a darkened room and see darkness run! Light always wins. Bad will never lead to good and good stands alone as the ultimate power. Reply

Ruth Housman marshfield hills, MA January 29, 2010

light and dark Hi, just a quick response. I don't believe we can have light without darkness. They are part of each other. They fold together. As all opposites. Can we know anything without its opposite? Can we know or appreciate each other without knowing loss? Life has its shadow side. The Chinese wrote about yin and yang, and of course we have a magnet, and no matter where you cut it there's a north and south pole. Free will and determinism do a dance together. We know this. We have a genetics that determines aspects of our lives and at least, the illusion of choice but we do know human development follows a program. Watch a child develop!

So I think it's about accepting darkness as an integral part of light, and I think it's about what we do with darkness that counts such as helping each other with our emotional darkness, namely the act of tikkun olam in all that we do.

I see a profound learning curve in life. As path is in the word empathy, I think it's what we need to learn. Reply

Anonymous January 29, 2010

darkness in our Creator's world Is darkness in this world, our opportunity to dominate the spiritual realm of darkness, with the help and power of G-d? In this way, he dominates darkness through us. What do the words from Deuteronomy 6 mean? "The LORD your G-d he is one."? Reply

Ruth housman Marshfield Hills, MA January 21, 2010

Black Holes Depression itself is called by some The Black Dog, and we do sink into what we call a black hole, at times, when life seems utterly meaningless or we are felled by sadness. The inherent paradox of life is that within darkness there is light, and we do know that white contains all colors and that black absorbs them all. We see these deep metaphoric threads running throughout our lives. It could be said that all life is metaphor. I am saying this.

So the rabbi, in writing about outer space, is also describing inner space. I have made this same metaphoric connect, and he is perfectly correct. We can draw inferences that do affect us all from this metaphor.

As to rabbis having all the answers and we being the students at their feet, I do believe as this person who wrote, that answers come to us all, and that some rabbis do come across that way, but we need to be careful about slinging our arrows.

To ask a question is often to receive answers and for us all, it's the first step. Reply

Taylor San Francisco, CA January 20, 2010

Oh yes More Please! This is good. Reply