Darkness and Light
by Rabbi David Zaslow
In Isaiah 45:7 the prophet utters the words he hears from Hashem, “I form the light and create darkness. I make peace and create evil. I, Hashem, make these….” Isaiah then continues with his own words, “Woe unto him that strives with his Maker….Shall the clay say to him that fashions it, “What are you making?”
These passages are speaking to the riddle of good and evil. How can God who desires good permit evil to exist? The answer is resolved (sort of resolved) in our tradition with the idea that the riddle is really a paradox; something we simply have to live with, struggle with, and ultimately permit to be an unresolved mystery. Unsatisfying, isn’t it? When we see good people suffer and evil people thrive, something arises in me that just wants to “strive with my Maker.” But “woe unto me” when I do. I get myself deeper into despair over all the unnecessary suffering in the world.
Yet, here’s another paradox: Every time I tempt the “woe unto me” by “striving with my Maker” I use the very force of evil that Isaiah warns us about, and I seem to come out a level higher. It’s as if God is tempting me NOT to take these words too literally, but to strive like Abraham does on behalf of Sodom, or as Moses does on behalf of Israel.
In fact, our tradition applauds using the forces of rebellion, the forces of seeming independence from God, in order to trump God’s hand. And every time this is done in the name of goodness and humanity, God folds the cards and declares we’ve won. Freud contended with God against the lack of compassion for the mentally ill. Jonas Salk contended with God against polio. The Jewish people contended with God after the Holocaust and forced Great Britain’s hand for an independent Israel. And Einstein contended with God against the mysteries of the universe itself.
Martin Buber taught that evil is simply the lowest rung of goodness. He taught that out of evil itself can come great good. He invited us to take a look at our own lives. Does goodness come by itself? No, it comes in contrast to our mistakes, our sins. When we err and see it for what it is, the good that comes out of it is even greater than the good that exists where there was no prior sin. Does this justify the sin? Buber says no. But we will make mistakes. And what matters is what we do with them. Sin, transformed, creates an extraordinary light. How the world deals with our relationship to the earth; how nations at war deal with their enemies; how we deal with each other – striving in these areas may catapult humanity into the greatest renaissance of peace ever known.
A millennium of peace, the messianic age– a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. God continues to tell Isaiah what will someday happen: “Drop down you heavens from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness. Let the earth open and let them bring forth salvation. And let righteousness spring up together.”
During the Hanukkah season we light candles, not curse the darkness. During the darkest time of the year we tell not only stories of good triumphing over evil, but stories of evil itself transforming. Our tradition teaches us that the darkest time of the year is not a time to make confessions and resolutions for a new year. That work is done during equinox, not solstice. The darkest days are days for going deeply inside ourselves and being thankful for all the transformations that have occurred; celebrating how our past negative traits have been used for good in our lives when we were willing to face the shadow, own it, repair the damage, and then move on.
May the new year, and the new millennium, bring God’s promise of blessing and joy to each of us. May we each have the courage to light the menorah next week with the knowledge that only because of the darkness can we even appreciate the light. Only because of our suffering can we appreciate our joys. Only because of our mistakes can we appreciate our transformations.
As we enter a new era, the mystery remains. Good people are still suffering. Nations are still at war with each other over things as trite as land, power, and material wealth. And I’m going to spend Hanukkah striving with my Maker. How? By loving my neighbor as myself just a little bit more. By loving my incredible wife and children even more. By lighting the candles each night and meditating on their meaning.