The Darkness

The power of the final plagues.

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

Darkness unsettles us. As children we went to sleep with a small light on; as adults we prefer to come home to a dwelling not totally dark. We fear what we cannot see. It is for this reason that we start the evening service with the recitation of a verse from Psalm 78: "But he, the compassionate one, would expiate sin, and not destroy; he would again and again turn back his anger, and would not arouse his full wrath" (v. 38, Edward J. Greenstein). As the darkness of night envelops us, we affirm God's nearness. God does not withdraw with the setting of the sun.


We intone ma'ariv [evening prayer service] only after the appearance of three stars. It begins with barkhu, the call to praise God in a minyan [prayer quorum of 10]. Yet before that summons to prayer, we softly recite for ourselves vehu rahum . . . The verse is there to offset our anxiety with the onset of night. It avers the opposite of what we fear.

According to the midrash, the first time Adam experienced nightfall, he was overcome with dread. That first Shabbat of God's newly created world had lasted 36 hours. As it ended, Adam feared that under cover of darkness his mortal enemy, the snake, would do him harm. To assuage his angst,God provided Adam with two flints from which he produced fire. During the havdalah ceremony ending Shabbat we still recall that initial act of human creativity by saying a special blessing over fire praising God for enabling Adam to dissipate the darkness (Bereshit Rabba 11:2). Similarly, the ritual of starting ma'ariv with vehu rahum was inspired by the tinge of Adam's primordial dread that assaults us nightly.

Darkness by Day

The ancient Egyptians called the experiential absence of divinity "darkness by day." How much more frightening is the reversal of nature! They worshiped the sun not only as the source of their well-being but as the regenerator of creation on a daily basis. From the Middle Kingdom on the king was venerated as the son of Re, the living incarnation of the sun."The mystery of solar rebirth is in fact the central, salvational element in Egyptian religion" (Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt, p. 209).

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.