D’var Torah – Darkness
Written by Cantor Tamara Wolfson — 15 March 2021
According to a Jewish folktale, the Israelites first prayed the words of the Hashkiveinu, our evening prayer for protection, during their first night in the wilderness: under the stars, with no shelter, with enemies lurking in the shadows and the cries of wild beasts piercing the silence, they experienced the darkness with new vulnerability.
Although we no longer live in fear of wild beasts, we are still vulnerable, and made especially vulnerable by the dark – so the Hashkiveinu is a prayer only recited in the evening.
Most often, when we read it, we do so as a nod to our own vulnerability and as a statement of our responsibility for others. But the news this week has been a reminder that vulnerability is not an abstract concept, and that we, too, experience the threat of the darkness.
The Hashkiveinu prayer asks God to “be a shield about us, turning away every enemy, disease, violence, hunger, and sorrow”. Our fears might not be the same as our Israelite ancestors, but each of us experiences the wild beasts of our current lives in different ways. On this Shabbat, when we are especially aware of the threat of darkness, we turn together to our tradition as we reckon with the various ways that we experience darkness.
Midrash recounts the terrifying moment when Adam and Eve first experienced darkness. We read in Masechet Avodah Zara:
“On the day that Adam and Eve were created, when the sun set upon them, they cried out in anguish, saying: ‘Because we sinned, the world is becoming dark around us, and the world will return to a state of chaos and disorder. And this is the death that was sentenced upon us from Heaven [for the sin of the forbidden fruit].’ They spent all night fasting and crying. When dawn broke, they said: evidently, the sun sets and night arrives, and this is the order of the world. So they arose and sacrificed a bull…”
This sacrifice at sunrise is one of many possible endings to this story.
On this particular Shabbat, I want to focus on another Mishnaic interpretation: that at the moment when Adam and Eve cried out in fear as darkness descended, God responded by teaching them how to produce fire by striking two flints against each other. Having been successful, Adam and Eve blessed the fire.
This last version of the midrash finds Adam and Eve equipped to protect themselves against the darkness, armed with the tools they need to help them feel safe. In gratitude for that protection and safety, they blessed the light. The Rabbis cite this midrash as the reason that we bless a Havdalah candle at the end of Shabbat, recalling the relief and gratitude Adam and Eve felt when they first learned they could dissipate the darkness.
Our tradition teaches us that we can, and we must, dissipate the darkness. We have a responsibility to one another, to create a society in which all in our community feel protected; to acknowledge that we do not all encounter the darkness in the same way, and all deserve to feel safe.
This week has reminded us that protection and safety are not abstract concepts that only live in Torah, Midrash, or liturgy. May we work to build a society in which we all feel safe, protected, and sheltered by a canopy of peace. We turn together to the words of Hashkiveinu on our shul sheets.