“And the nation stood at a distance and Moshe approached the darkness where Gd was.”1 This verse had a profound impact on me when I first read it during my first few days in yeshiva. I couldn’t say exactly why at the time, but I trusted the resonance and memorized it. I found myself often repeating it through some of the more difficult days.
This verse in Parshat Yitro appears after Hashem reveals Himself to Bnei Yisrael in thunder and lightning, amidst the blowing of the shofar.2 “‘You speak to us,’ they [Bnei Yisrael] said to Moshe, ‘and we will obey; but let not Gd speak to us, lest we die.’”3 The nation then stands aside while Moshe approaches the darkness to speak with Gd.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov comments on this verse:
“When they see the thick cloud, namely the obstacle, they remain at a distance: But Moshe, who represents the quality of awareness [da’at] for all of Israel, ‘approached the thick cloud, where Gd was,’ namely: he approached the obstacle, where the blessed Gd is actually hidden. … Through the hindrances themselves, in fact, one might draw closer to Gd because that is where Gd is hidden. And this is the meaning of ‘Moshe approached the thick cloud’ that is: the obstacle, for that is ‘where Gd was.’…”4
It is daavka in these places where we think that Hashem is not that He can most be found. It is in these places in ourselves of which we are most afraid that we will find truth and healing. A friend pointed out to me that to him this verse encompasses the idea of therapy and I tend to agree. Only through the process of going into our own pain and darkness can we find our true self, our neshama, the fraction of Hashem within us.
This place of darkness – of pain, of sadness, of loneliness, of self-criticism – is always terrifying to approach. The very fact that the place inspires fear signifies to us its importance. Fear results from the unknown nature of this place – hence the analogy to darkness and fog. Rashi comments on an earlier verse to say that this darkness refers to the darkest part of the fog, “and this is the ערפל, the thick darkness mentioned in Exodus 20:18.”5 We are afraid because we truly don’t know how much pain and darkness there is in this place. We have been running from it much of our lives. Perhaps we fear getting lost in the darkness – sinking into it so much that we cannot pull ourselves out. We ran from it before because we did not think ourselves capable of confronting it. It is not always pleasant to accept its existence. When we finally do, we must also confront our fears. This verse promises hope – it is exactly where we think He might least be found that we must trust He is closest.
Often, when we embark upon painful journeys of self-discovery and self-healing, we are confronted by the many voices of “fear” and “doubt.” The voices tell us that nothing good will come from opening these doors. They will tell us that the process is useless and meaningless. They weave doubt into our minds over whether we are capable. Often, it will even whisper that we need our feelings of inadequacy in order to keep us moving forward, or else we will stagnate. These voices are lies and our power lies in seeing them as lies. We can assault these voices and berate them into submission. Ultimately though, this is not to “approach the darkness,” but rather to keep ourselves distanced from it. It is better to see them for what they are. These fears are there to protect us. They were necessary in the past to protect us from pain. But today we no longer need them for we are older, wiser, and capable of handling our pain and processing it, understanding it, and approaching it. The fear cannot be subjugated, but when it is seen and understood for the purpose it has served, mainly, our protection, it slowly eases. And when we move through our darkness and come out the other side, the fear disappears, for we prove to it that we are capable of braving the darkness. “Even when I walk in the valley of darkness, I will fear no evil for You are with me.”6
What does it mean to truly find Hashem in the darkness? I think it means to find purpose in the pain and sadness. When often place layer upon layer of judgements upon our pain and sadness: “I don’t want this. I wish I was happy. I’d be happy, whole, and enough if I only had that.” At that point, we’re simply staying lost in our darkness. To find Hashem in the darkness means to use the darkness to connect with Truth. To do this we must simply observe with curiosity. We can look at our pain and say: “look how I’m sad right now, I wonder what was it that disconnected me? What might this pain be showing me?” Through this process, the darkness ends up teaching us about ourselves. It connects us deeper to our neshama. When we do this, we are using our darkness to transcend and, through this act, we transform and heal our pain.
The first step towards finding Hashem in our darkness is to accept that the existence of our darkness is not our fault. It too was put there by Hashem. When we let go of the idea that the disconnect is BAD, that it SHOULDN’T be there, then we allow ourselves to approach it, to see it, and to learn about it. Its existence doesn’t mean we’re broken and it doesn’t mean we’re inadequate. Any negative judgement of our darkness is a fundamental rejection of a part of ourselves and is simply feeding the same cycle of disconnect. As long as we are rejecting a part of ourselves we will stay disconnected from Hashem.
A Midrash recounts Satan’s efforts to subvert Avraham’s journey to place Yitzhak on the altar. Satan attempts to convert them with words but fails. He then places a roaring river in their path. “When Abraham stepped into the river, it reached his knees. He ordered his young men to follow him, and they did so. But in the middle of the river the water reached his neck. Thereupon, Abraham lifted his eyes heavenward and cried out: Master of the Universe...”7 Avraham walks into the river – a river so real he can feel the wetness against his leg, the pull of its current against his body. Up to his neck he goes before he finally cries out to Hashem. At that moment, Hashem causes the river to disappear. Avraham does not stand at the edge of the river and scream out that the river shouldn’t be there. He simply accepts its existence and keeps moving forward.
To find Hashem in the darkness means to truly realize that we cannot repress and still live whole, connected lives. It is to incorporate our darkness into us and use it to connect deeper with Hashem, thus transforming the darkness and healing it. Pain and struggle builds within us also the incredible potential to hold love, empathy, and sensitivity. When we approach the darkness we may fear that it will wash us away. But Hashem will not let us drown, for it was also Him who gave us our darkness. It is only because of our fear that we feel we might drown. When we truly have emunah, the fear disappears for we know that we are supposed to approach the darkness. When we let go of our fear, we allow ourselves to reconnect with something much deeper within us. Approach with courage, let go of fear, observe with honesty and compassion, and may we all merit to find Hashem in the darkness.
A thank you to Brian Lissak and Eli Beda for their important lessons and contributions to both me and this week’s dvar.
- Shemot: 20:18
- Shemot: 20:15
- Shemot: 20:16
- Likutei Moharan 115:1:5-8
- Rashi: Shemot: 19:9
- Tehillim (Psalms) 23:4
- Midrash Tanchuma: Vayera, 22:12