When We Can’t See the Future, Creating Light in the Darkness
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780
Rabbi Jen Gubitz
It was a brilliant moment as the sun shone and reds and oranges and yellows vibrantly cast their glow across the sky. It was a relief, too. Adam and Eve never could have imagined encountering such beauty outside the blissful garden of Eden. Just days before they were basking together in the nourishing light of creation, but it was downhill from there. A shrewd snake had enticed them by a tree’s sweet fruit and they were cast out from the garden. Banished forever from their idyllic beginnings. all that brought them joy in life was lost. So when the sun began to set for their very first time, the colors shifted into hues of purples and blues and the darkness of night arrived as their great worry set in. In the Garden of Eden it was as if the sun shone all day and all night, but now all they could see was darkness. Where had the sun gone? Would it ever return? “Surely,” Adam thought “this darkness will overcome us.” Is this our future? They cried.
The rabbis of the midrash called this time bein hashmashot - between two suns - a time of transition when we are neither here nor there, no longer but not yet. It was a liminal moment, on the threshold between one day and the next, and it was a moment disorienting and quite scary. Adam and Eve had never experienced darkness like this before and could not imagine a way out. Who, how, when, they wondered, would they move past it? And, they feared, what would the future bring?
All he could see was darkness. It had been six months in quarantine, Adam had just finished a master’s degree and the job market was slim. So he flew home to California in layers of masks and gloves, quarantined for two weeks in a family friend's spare room, got a Covid test (negative), and then finally hugged his parents who were immunocompromised. Each morning, they would start their rather uneventful day with a cup of coffee. Each night, they would go for a walk to watch the marvelous sunset of reds, oranges, and yellows painted across the sky. For just a few moments each day, this dumpster fire of a year seemed slightly less bleak. And then, of course, the fires came.
“Everything feels so dark,” he texted his partner, Eve, “and the skies are flooded with so much smoke that I literally cannot see the sun.” When Eve read Adam’s text message, she felt the grief welling up inside her, filling her with so much sadness, disappointment and fear, a bit of complacency, some depression even. So she scrolled Instagram to take her mind off things and one post caught her eye: “Shout out to all the millennials who are trying to make moves to plan the rest of their lives… but are also keenly aware that there is no future…” She threw her iPhone across the room: “he can’t see the sun, and I can’t see the future.”
Even though the sun, thank God, still rises daily, it’s not only instagram memes that highlight this stark truth for us which is that many of us cannot see the future right now. We feel like we are in a freeze frame, an eternity of stuckness. What will tomorrow bring? Next month? Next year? We have so many questions, fears, and uncertainties. In the loneliness, isolation, and upending of Covid-19, systemic racism, climate change, and our country in crises, we humans, who generally love what is predictable and well planned, don’t know what next week or even tomorrow will bring. And next year, whether in Jerusalem or in person, may as well be a decade away! So much for 2020 vision.
So what do we do? What do we do when we can’t see the future? What do we do when everything feels so dark that we can’t even see the sun?
The Rabbis of ancient days wondered this, too. After all, they were living a life of longing to return to how and where things once were. The Temple in Jerusalem was long destroyed and they were rebuilding life as best they could in Babylonia (and the broader diaspora.) They spent all day long reading, discussing, and debating - basically binge watching Torah stories - as they tried to understand life’s biggest questions and make sense of Judaism in a new context.
I envision them gathered around tables, sacred texts unscrolled, squinting probably - because Warby Parker (and glasses) didn’t exist yet - as they tried to imagine how Adam and Eve felt on their first night alone in the darkness.
One rabbi asks: Why did they eat the forbidden fruit? Another wishes: Can’t they just go back to Eden? Ponders another. Can’t they just ask God for a do-over? A wise one wonders: What will bring them comfort?
So, the rabbis placed in Adam’s hands a ritual of transition and separation - Havdalah - specifically the flame and the blessing to mark the end of the light of Shabbat, in order to face the dark of night and kindle comfort to endure the unknown of a new week.
Why did the rabbis do this? In the creative work of midrash they could’ve made up anything, but they chose to put into Adam’s hands a pillar of fire. But why? I searched and searched Jewish sacred texts for an answer for us, for me, that I hoped the rabbis of ancient days had sent us to help us understand this moment in our lives where we can barely tell when the day ends and the night begins, where we can barely see the sun or the future. The pragmatic and likely answer is that the Rabbis needed to show us that the ritual of Havdalah, with fire, spice and wine, is so important that it started at the beginning of time. But what could it mean for us today?
So I pulled up my chair to their ancient rabbinic table to imagine the reason: You see, as Adam and Eve sat crying in the darkness and the rabbis wrote the flame into Adam’s hands, Adam immediately cried out a blessing: Thank you, O Source of Light for this sacred light! And then he intoned: Bless you, O God, who divides light from the darkness. Maybe the rabbis put fire in Adam’s hands, not because he needed actual light, but because he needed to be compelled to offer gratitude and inspired to find words to articulate his experience. Maybe as the heat of fire warmed his body, a proverbial light was cast on a possible path beyond the darkness. Maybe he needed to feel again in order to be shocked out of the darkness and to see in the sparks, a hope to come. And maybe, maybe they really wanted him to have Havdalah, a ritual of intentionally making distinctions, instead of the often avoidant activities like scrolling instagram or netflix. We need rituals to hold us in our pain and fear as we sit, bein hashmashot, between the two suns. Like Adam, ritual can hold us as we experience the unknown and wait for a new day to dawn.
Pull up your chair to the ancient rabbinic table: What would bring you - bring you - comfort in these days where we sit in such a darkness that the future is so hard to behold? We may ask: Though we may not be able to see the sun or that far into the future right now, can we at least see the people or even just one person and the values and ideals we need to light our way?
The powerful light placed in Adam’s hands helped him ritually to bless his discomfort and fear, to mark the time, bein hashamashot, between the two suns - yes as scary, but also as sacred - reminding him to see that when there is darkness there can also be light.
While one rabbinic text puts a pillar of fire right into Adam’s very hands, there’s another reading of this story where the rabbis put into Adam’s hands two flint stones - such that with Eve’s help, they had to learn how to spark fire themselves. And so they faced the darkness with agency and purpose. But the rabbis take it a step further and offer that if you are without a candle or (for our purposes) a match, lacking the right materials to spark light, then you can bless the bright glow of the stars. And if you can’t see the stars because they are eclipsed by more darkness, by smoke, or by your struggle to see - then, then you can bless even the rocks on the ground.
And why? Because they wanted us to know that even if we don’t have everything we want or need right now - we can still bless whatever it is we have.
Have we ever really been able to see the future? I’m not sure we ever could. We just had enough scaffolding, activities, things to do, busyness, rituals even - surrounding us to blind us from that very truth.
These are hard, painful, lonely, dark times, but the blueprint of our tradition since the dawn of time offers us a gift. Whether a cup of coffee, an evening walk, a playlist, poem, or a moment of breath, whether Shabbat candles or the Havdalah spice: rediscover an item, a person, an idea, a ritual - hourly, daily, weekly or monthly. Place it in your own hands and create your own sparks.
Baruch atah Adonai, Borei M’orei Ha’aish! May the source of this new year, sustain us in our darkness, and may we each hold a torch to illuminate the way for one another. Let us make what is scary become sacred - as we move together towards renewal, hope, and light.
Sermon woven from: Pirkei de Rebbe Eliezer 20:4; Bereshit Rabbah 11:2; BT Avodah Zarah 8a; Psalm 89:11.