The more complicated our lives become, the more difficult it is to count our blessings. At times, we may become overwhelmed by feelings of anger, loneliness, frustration, despair, or sorrow. We may be wracked by physical pain or unable to free ourselves from serious bouts of depression. As in this week's Torah portion, B'reishit, darkness precedes light and chaos precedes order. Metaphorically, we may have so much on our plates that we can't decide what to do first and when we do, may frequently lose focus. Sometimes I begin my day by saying to myself: "I have so much to do, I wish today were 48 instead of 24 hours." Consequently, I rush to accomplish as much as I can, often feeling harried and dissatisfied, not fully able to enjoy moments for which in hindsight, I wasn't fully present. When we begin the cycle of Torah readings each year, however, I am reminded that God's first creative act, even before God brought the sky and earth into being, was to create light. Darkness already existed on the face of "chaotic waters" (Genesis 1:2). Yet as God's spirit glided over it, God created light, choosing not to inject the light into the darkness, but rather to create it as a distinct entity which God proclaims to be good (1:3).
In Isaiah 45:7, God seems to reiterate both the goodness of light, and the existence of light and darkness as separate entities. As the One who creates all things, "I form light and create darkness," says God, "I make shalom [peace] and create ra [woe, that which is bad, or evil]." Yet in contrast to the plain meaning of Isaiah 45:7 and Gen.1:2, Maimonides' later view was that light and darkness are not entities that exist in and of themselves. Rather each, he wrote, is simply the absence of the other (Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed, Part 3, Chapter 10, commenting on Isaiah 45:7).
My interest, however, does not lie primarily in the nature of light and darkness, but in how we actually experience them. The early verses of Genesis, describing the chaos of darkness accurately reflects, I think, the muddiness of dark thoughts and the sense of aloneness that people often feel when they are literally or figuratively in the dark. In contrast, many of us equate light with physical and spiritual illumination — moments of clarity or meaning often accompanied with feelings of joy and gratitude. These are the moments in which I count my blessings, reminding myself of how many things in my life are good, instead of dwelling on that which is bad.
In those moments, I experience what B'reishit identifies as God's "spirit," ruach, as divinity itself: God, not as a being on high who zaps the light, and eventually the world and all living beings, into Creation, but rather God as a life-source and life-force who helps bring forth and sustains Creation. Ruach can also be translated as "wind" or "breath," words that, like spirit, convey motion. Spirit, wind, and breath can be felt and experienced but not seen. They are invisible forces that energize us, perhaps leading to an awareness of God as a "Power not ourselves that makes for righteousness" — a well-known formulation from Matthew Arnold's Literature and Dogma (1873), appreciatively cited by liberal rabbis in England and the United States throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries in sermons, essays, and books, including Mordecai Kaplan's 1937 The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (Third printing, The Reconstructionist Press, 1962, p. 297).
Arnold's formulation is reminiscent of a Rabbinic legend identifying the light created by God with the primordial light of consciousness, a light much brighter than the sun that shines on the deeds of the righteousness (B'reishit Rabbah 3.6 and 3.8, The Soncino Press, 1983, pp. 22, 24). Similarly, the great 13th century mystical text, The Zohar, equates the primordial light with the light of the eye, a light showed by God to Adam, which enabled him to see from one end of Creation to the other (see Daniel C. Matt, trans., The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, vol. 1, 1:31b [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003], p. 192). Rabbi Lawrence Kushner identifies this "inner structure of consciousness" as a "realm of being that comes before us and follows after us, streaming through and uniting all creation." It is, he writes, "the way of the Tao" or, drawing on the Zohar, a "river of light" (Lawrence Kushner, The River of Light: Spirituality, Judaism, and Consciousness [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1981], p. 94).
Kushner does not limit awareness of this river to the righteous. Ideally, it is available to all who open themselves to the reality of light in the world and in each of us. And when we open ourselves to this reality, we actually may experience what Abraham Joshua Heschel called the "momentous realness of God," and the "beauty, peace, and power" flowing through our souls as a result of this realization. Thus, as Heschel wrote: "The essence of Jewish religious thinking does not lie in entertaining a concept of God but in the ability to articulate a memory of moments of illumination" by the divine presence (Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism [NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955], pp. 138, 140). These memories help us recognize our own experiences of light.
Dr. Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT; Professor of Religious Studies; and director of the university's Bennett Center for Judaic Studies. She is a long-time member of Reform Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY.