Torah portion: Darkness will become light
Parashat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1-3:22
“Had I not fallen, I could not have arisen; had I not sat in the darkness, He would not have been a light for me.”
— Midrash Tehillim
This week’s portion is the beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy, which is read immediately before the holiday of Tisha b’Av, one of the most difficult holidays to get Jews to observe.
Commemorating so many losses, destructions and pains in our Jewish history, the holiday helps us to emotionally remember the pain we have experienced collectively as Jews. As a result, we get in touch with our own personal pain and tragedies, as well.
But it’s not just about pain; it’s also about faith. Faith that the pain will be transformed into joy, that the darkness will become light through God’s compassion and our own personal acts of teshuvah.
Rabbi Akiva demonstrates this faith in the midst of darkness in our Talmud (Makkot 24b), by laughing as he explores the recently destroyed Temple with his colleagues. He has faith that the destruction is a preface for rebuilding an even greater Temple. While his colleagues are mired in the pain, he chooses to have that faith and see a greater outcome in the future. He knows, on the deepest of levels, that the pain he feels will dissipate and that light will come into the world again.
A few years ago I was at a Friday night service at Camp Hess Kramer, and was introduced to Noam Katz’s song “Roll Into Dark”: “Roll into dark, roll into light. / Night becomes day, day turns to night.” Experiencing these young Jews at camp expressing faith in the cycles of the universe moved me deeply. As they sang, I felt the passion of these young people and their commitment to the darkness in the world rolling away.
This song has become a staple in our synagogue, combining it in a musical mashup with “Ufros Aleynu” (praying to God to spread over us a covering a peace) and “Lo Yissa Goy” (the prophecy that there will no longer be war). For many in our community, including me, it is often the most powerful prayer of the Friday evening service. It is an awareness that the darkness of the world will shift to light, that God will cover us in His peace, and that there will come a time with God’s help when nations shall no longer learn war. It is a conscious choice to have faith. And faith is always a choice.
It is a universally accepted truth that inside every person, there is always the choice to act based on either faith or fear. The more we choose to interact with the world based on fear, the less faith we have in our lives (and often end up with a “crisis of faith”). The more we have faith, the more the fear dissipates. But how can we be like Rabbi Akiva and embrace that faith that it will get better?
Observing Tisha b’Av is one of the Jewish answers. By having the courage to go fully into the pain of the holiday, to emotionally remember and experience the many losses of our people on that day, the holiday enables us to come through to the other side cleansed, optimistic and filled with a faith that by the time we reach the High Holy Days, the world will be better. Not that it might be, but that it will be. “Had I not fallen, I could not have arisen” (Midrash Tehillim). The falling down is a guarantee that we will arise; the darkness itself is a promise that the light will come.
Or we can avoid the pain of the holiday out of fear of getting caught up in it, and remain in the darkness and pain for an indeterminate amount of time.
That is the choice that Tisha b’Av offers us: to have the faith to go through pain and find joy, or to be scared of experiencing it fully and to remain stuck in darkness.
There is an old teaching that a child went to his grandfather and said, “I feel like there is a bad wolf and a good wolf battling inside me for my soul. Which one will win?” The grandfather replied, “Whichever one you feed the most.” I suggest substituting fear and faith for the wolves in this story. Which one will win? Which will lead your life into the light?
The one you feed the most.
“I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
We’ve had enough darkness in the world. May we all be blessed to explore Tisha b’Av with the intent and result of choosing the light of faith over the darkness of fear, and to see the darkness of the world shift to peace in our time.
Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village (NerSimcha.org), and the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together” (Liturgical Press). He can be reached at RabbiBarclay@aol.com.