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Hayom Harat Olam: Opening to Darkness — Rosh Hashanah 5784

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

These holidays are called many things in our tradition. Rosh Hashanah is known as Yom Din, the Day of Judgment, and as Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. The ten days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur are called Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Teshuvah. They are also called the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe – or, more literally, the "Awe-full Days," and the double meaning is intentional. An experience of "awe" was not necessarily an easy or pleasant one for our ancestors. The word for "awe" in Hebrew – yirah – is the same as the word for "fear," and it connotes trembling, an awareness of how small we are and how contingent our lives are. We could call these the Days of Fear and Trembling. 

I've been thinking about these Awe-full Days in a somewhat different way this year, because of an incredible book that I've been immersed in since the beginning of the summer. It's called Opening to Darkness: Eight Gateways for Being With The Absence of Light In Unsettling Times, by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, who is also referred to by the title Osho, meaning Zen master. Osho Zenju grew up in the Christian tradition but she is now an ordained Zen Buddhist priest. She is also, in her words, a poet, an author, and a medicine woman. Her lived experience as an older, African-American lesbian of working class background also informs, in powerful ways, her spiritual journey and her teaching.

Osho Zenju wrote Opening to Darkness during the pandemic, and it speaks profoundly to the moment we are in. She writes:

It's the 21st century, and it feels like we are returning to the beginning, to the dark origin from which humans emerged. The trouble in the world is asking us to assess and recreate how we live. Along the way, we lost track of the stars, and now find ourselves in fear of one another, of living and dying, and of the consequences of the human being's impact on the planet we live on. The greatest question is 'What will happen to us next?' What if there is no next? (p. 14)

What if there is no next? Despite that somewhat ominous question, this is not a despairing book. Quite the opposite. It is a brave, wise and honest book. It's a guide for dwelling in these challenging times, and an invitation to discover new paths to individual and collective liberation. I've been on a journey with this book over the past few months, and I'd like to share a bit of what I've learned with you, and how these teachings resonate with our journey through these Awe-full Days.

Osho Zenju uses the word "darkness" in both its physical and more metaphysical manifestations: the darkness of night, of the womb, of the earth and the deep sea, and also what she calls "dark experiences," those challenging, frightening and sometimes devastating experiences that are part and parcel of being alive. While she recognizes the many positive things that can be associated with darkness, in this book she chooses to delve into those aspects of our lives that hark back to our most ancient, primordial fears.  
She teaches that for a variety of reasons, including the desire of some humans to control others, darkness has become associated with the negative, and light with the positive, and this false polarity has limited all of our capacity to, in her words, "learn how to dwell in darkness."

In her reflection on the meaning of darkness, Zenju writes:

The existence of darkness in our lives and in the world has been used to distort and undermine darkness as well as to promote and justify the purity of lightness…Within each of us, darkness is embodied, whether we acknowledge its existence or not. Simply being born from darkness has anchored an experience of it within us…The inclusion of blackness with darkness in my exploration was necessary, as I live in a dark and a Black body. When I say "darkness," I mean "blackness" too, and when I say "blackness," I mean "darkness" as well.

She goes on:

We are all aware that we have used these terms to describe one another as people throughout time and even more so in the last decade. We have even created light supremacy among everyone, despite skin color. It is this supremacy that makes it important to explore beneath the words and the experiences attached to the words, in order to transform and heal the fear and anxiety around darkness and blackness and its being rendered inferior to lightness and whiteness. And to explore our dark experiences so that when faced with them, we are not looking for light, but rather being with the darkness provided as ground for transformation and renewal. (p. 16, emphasis added)

Transformation and renewal — this is our aspiration during these days of teshuvah. Here is a bit more from the book:

When dark experiences arrive in our lives, we may feel we are facing death, when in fact something is trying to be born in us and into the world…If we contemplate the darkness of the womb, a home we may not remember, then the feelings of eeriness, evil or shadow that we place on what's dark may begin to fade…The womb provided warmth, moisture, blood, water, air, food and other substances to grow flesh, hair, and muscles. To consider the womb as source of darkness, as source of life, is a way to open to the darkness that birthed us — a darkness that could be abundant, tragic, and cosmic. (p. 65)

"Abundant, tragic, and cosmic" — that pretty well sums up the themes of these High Holydays! 

In our liturgy this morning we read the words Hayom harat olam — "today the world is born, today the cosmos is conceived." The word "harat" specifically refers to conception and birth, and this phrase is used in our liturgy, as far as I know, only on Rosh Hashanah. Hayom harat olam; today the world is born.

And what does this moment of birth look like? We read one description a little earlier, in the maftir that Shalev chanted, the very beginning of the Torah: v'ha'aretz hayta tohu v'vohu, choshech al pnei tehom, v'ruach Elohim merachefet al p'nei hamayim: "The earth was tohu v’vohu, darkness over the Deep, a God-wind fluttering over the waters."

Like a baby before it emerges from the womb, the beginnings of the earth are found in watery darkness. In the beginning, all was darkness – the darkness of the tehom, the Deep – and God was in this darkness as well. On Rosh Hashanah we return to the dark experience of the cosmic womb.

And there are other strands of darkness in our High Holydays liturgy and ritual. The Torah portions read during Rosh Hashanah are challenging, to say the least. We read this morning not just of the joyous birth of Isaac, but of Abraham and Sarah's mistreatment of their slave-woman, Hagar, exiling her and her son Ishmael into the wilderness. We heard Hagar's anguished cry out of fear for her son's life. Tomorrow's Torah reading is just as harrowing, the narrative of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac. And today's haftarah portion contains the heart-rending story of Hannah and her anguish as she struggles to bear a child.

There is darkness in the High Holydays liturgy as well. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we chant the Unetaneh Tokef, and ask the terrifying question: who will live, and who will die? We confront our worst fears and the randomness inherent in our fate. We face the reality that we have no idea what the new year will bring, for better or for worse. On Yom Kippur, we dress in clothing that reminds us of the burial shrouds awaiting us; we confront our own mortality as we seek spiritual transformation.

And why? Because, as Osho Zenju teaches:

Opening to darkness is an inner journey with opening to life…When we become aware of darkness, we are charged with finding ways to dwell in it, hopefully without harm. When darkness is seen and felt, it teaches us to dwell with life, with both the harshness and the softness of it. The awareness of darkness is an indication of being in the experience of expansion and renewal. It is a time when we can enact transformation. (pp. 27, 73-74)

We engage with all of this – our prayers, our rituals, our holy texts – for the sake of expansion, transformation and renewal.

In my own personal journey with this book, I've learned that actively engaging with darkness, with my own experiences of pain and loss, can indeed be a transformative path. It is an invitation to not push away or ignore those dark places within me, but to learn how, in Manuel's words, to "dwell with" the darkness. She writes:

"Dwelling in darkness does not mean wallowing in sadness or pain, but being with darkness as a friend, a companion in discovering life and what we need to know of being human on a spiritual walk." As Zenju notes, darkness is already our companion, because, quote, "the present moment doesn't always feel good. The present moment isn't always filled with so-called light" (p. 117). She says:

A relationship with darkness is not for pleasure or happiness. Yes, I enjoy a dark room as the sun sets…But what I speak of here is a darkness that reveals itself over and over in painful ways, until it gets what it wants from us…I grew to love dark experiences as divine experiences. A collective opening to darkness is crucial to love. (p. 71)

I have spent a lot of time with these words. What does it mean to say, "What I speak of here is a darkness that reveals itself over and over in painful ways, until it gets what it wants from us"? How can I understand my own dark experiences as "divine experiences"?

This seems so contrary to what is usually offered as spiritual sustenance, which so often focuses on hope, on finding the light within the darkness, on freeing ourselves from pain. And it's not that Zenju doesn't want to free herself, and us, from pain. But at some point she realized that it was not darkness per se, but her view of it as troublesome, that caused much of her suffering. The honest truth is that we can't avoid the pain of our lives, and sometimes we need to go through it, to go deep into it, in order to get the medicine that we need and to emerge, intact, on the other side. And it is there, in the midst of the darkness, that we can indeed touch the divine.

I'd like to share a little bit from my book, God Is Here, because it speaks to this truth, which became revealed to me during one of the most difficult times of my life. This comes from the chapter on God as Water:

In the spring of 2014, my spouse, Gina, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. After a year of experimental treatments in which she was relatively symptom-free, in the fall of 2015 things took a turn for the worse, and she died the following March. Those months leading up to her death, during which she endured a nasty course of chemotherapy, were profoundly difficult. I needed every ounce of strength and compassion I could find to be a support to Gina and to keep from being overwhelmed by sadness and despair. During this journey, I found myself drawn to a chant composed by my colleague and teacher, Rabbi Shefa Gold, a setting of a verse from the book of Isaiah:

When you pass through the waters, I am with you; I won't let the rivers overwhelm you.

Chanting these words, I realized the profound insight of this verse. As I struggled to understand where God was in the terrible reality I was facing, I realized that water is essential to life –indeed, water is life – and yet sometimes it is also That which threatens me, overwhelms me, drowns me. God is at one and the same time the Waters through which I pass, and That which supports me as I make my way through an unbearable reality.  

Facing the prospect of the death of my beloved, I didn't rail against the unfairness of an inscrutable God who had brought suffering into my life. Instead, I did my best to sit with the reality that ultimately faces each and every one of us. I remembered my father's instruction to lean into, not away from, the turbulence when navigating a kayak through the rapids. I understood that the waves can be overwhelming and terrifying, and yet within them is the Godly Presence which sustains and supports me, even in the most difficult moments. I gave myself over to overwhelming waters, allowing myself to feel the profound sorrow within them, even as I sought the reassurance of God's Presence accompanying me as I made my way down the river.

More recently, as I read and did the meditations laid out in Osho Zenju's book, I learned about some darkness that I carry within me, and I also learned that I could engage with it, that I didn't have to battle it or try to eradicate this part of me. I learned that I could indeed befriend it. Mostly what it wanted was a bit of love and attention. In opening to and turning towards the darkness, I experienced a kind of relaxing. Somewhat paradoxically, by really leaning into the turbulence, coming close to it, I felt a great relief, a sense of ease and of healing.

Hayom harat olam. Today the world is born. A beautiful, gorgeous world that, sadly, we humans have mucked right up. And the truth is that the world will be okay; it will evolve beyond us, if it needs to, and move on to whatever is next. We, however, might not be so lucky.

And so, as we peer into the new year, we are reminded of all that we don't know. We really don't know what's next, individually or collectively. And this uncertainty, this not knowing, is part of dwelling with darkness. We need to be willing to get lost, and then to listen, to pay attention, in the dark, in order to find the path that we're meant to be on. During these ten days of awe, of fear, of deep reflection, we are given permission to feel the full range of our experience, whether that is sadness, joy, grief, despair, contentment, apprehension, anticipation.

We are invited to lean into all of it, the still waters and the turbulent eddies. And if you this year are sitting with heartache, don't push it away. Don't tell yourself you should be feeling something else. Welcome it as a companion and a teacher, even if one you'd prefer not to have to meet. Do this for the sake of transformation and renewal.

If these teachings from Opening to Darkness intrigue you, I encourage you to get the book and try the practices there yourself. And if this is not the path for you, that is also fine. But perhaps, in the new year, you might try turning, in a friendly way, into a dark experience that arises, and see what happens. Engage with it, ask questions of it. You can write a letter to it. What is this darkness? What is it here to teach me? What is being asked of me? Is there divinity in this darkness? See if you can relax with it, knowing that fighting it is ultimately fighting yourself, fighting your own life.

I'd like to give Zenju Earthlyn Manuel the final word, as she has been my teacher these past few months:

We have come into life without understanding what life is. Where did we come from? Where are we going? Without the answers we are frightened. The difficulties are part of life. No difficulties mean we are not alive. No disruptions mean we will not change. What joy we could have in working together with what challenges us as people…

Everything that life brings can be used to see further into this life. If you say you love darkness and blackness, then look to see if you love your struggle as a human being in the same way. Our pain, suffering and discombobulation are meant to help us commit to our lives and be willing to help others. In darkness, we become devoted to clarity, courage, peace and harmony. We discover the basic goodness of all humanity when we experience darkness together, which is to experience life together. The darkness can be the mess between us or the veil that protects our radiance…

When darkness comes in the form of difficulties, unwelcomed events and people, breathe into that darkness that is as vast as the night. It looks empty, but the dark sky is full of life. The darkness has come to assist you in connecting with everyone and everything that has come from such darkness and will return…Darkness comes to everyone as a great connector, because we all have come from it. The greatest courage is to open to darkness, to see all that life brings, whether it is acceptable or not.

My blessing for all of us is that we can be open to what life brings, to listen closely – Shema – to the messages it holds for us, and to remember that we are in the darkness together, learning together, and, God willing, finding paths together to greater love, and justice, and healing. May it be so.

Rabbi Toba Spitzer
Rosh Hashanah 5784

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784