The Dark Side of Light

The “Yotzer Or” prayer has, for a while now, held some enticing ideas for me. In the first sentence two verbs are used to indicate creation: “yotzer or u’vorei chosech” – “who forms light and creates darkness“. In common practice, the verb yotzer can be used by or about anyone. But borei? Only God can borei. Yotzer describes something that is formed, built, or fashioned. Borei indicates fabrication ex nihilo – out of nothing.

Or as Carl Sagan once said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

Even better, my friend Naomi points out, is WHAT gets borei’d and yotzer’d: Light is formed (yotzer) which is what everyone can do. But what does God have to create from nothing (borei)? Darkness. Nothingness. The absence of light. Everybody say it with me now: Oooooooooooooooooooh!

Beyond verb forms and halachic semantics though is another compelling idea: Further on the prayer says “[God] in His goodness renews daily, perpetually, the work of creation.” Not only did God create the world once, but God is perpetually re-creating it, moment by moment. From the first time I understood that part of the blessing, visions of “The Matrix” flashed through my mind – all those screens of code being constantly refreshed. The Yotzer Or prayer hints at that same idea, although on a grander and more perfect scale. And without all the car crashes and latex. But still with Lawrence Fishburne and Gloria Foster.

I’ve taken a lot of strength in that one concept – that God is perpetually involved in making the world “stick” – that without God’s active hand, molecules would fly apart, the world would revert to the chaos described in the open words of Bereshit/Genesis. As one writer put it, “The miracle isn’t that the waters [at the Red Sea] parted. It’s that water ever stays in it’s place at all!”

But in all that comfort, I never considered the flip side of perpetual creation – that we are constantly on the edge of destruction. That is, until today when I read an interview here, by Chris Guillebeau with the artist John Unger. Chris’s site – The Art of Non-Conformity – focuses on people who choose to live on their own terms, rather than fitting into molds of what other people think is right. John Unger is an artist. He made more money this year than last year, in a “down” economy” and talks about various setbacks which actually turned out to be steps on the road to his current success. Setbacks like spending 10 minutes with a gun pointed at his head; losing his good-paying job as a freelance graphic artist; losing part of a finger when he had to move out of his art space; and even the time his roof collapsed while he was standing on it, shoveling snow. You can read that article here.

And I’ll say the same as Chris in the interview posted on his site: If you have limited time and have to choose between reading the rest of this and jumping to John’s link, go for John’s stuff. It’s way more compelling than what I’m writing here.

OK, so if you are still here, this quote from the interview caught my eye:

Part of my resilience is that I know from experience that just because it seems like the apocalypse, it doesn’t mean tomorrow isn’t coming. I figure that the world ends every second, and it starts over the very next second. I’ve seen the end of the world so many times I’m just not impressed by it anymore.

When I read that, it hit me like a ton of siddurs (the big heavy hardback Artscrolls, not those tiny paperback Gates of Prayer thingies) – if God is perpetually creating, then we are also perpetually on the edge of destruction. We’re not ever destroyed, mind you (at least, I dont’ think so. Although this comic strip makes me wonder.)

Now I have to admit that I’m pretty risk averse person. I don’t think starting my own business would be “a hoot” – unless that’s the sound I’d hear right before my head implodes. In all of my attempts to invest in the stock market, I’ve always lost money, so I just don’t any more. I buy insurance on stuff. I take my medicine. I drive the speed limit.

And now I find out that despite every precaution, I’m still one Deific “oopsie” away from total annihilation!?!? I’m just about ready to call my wife and ask her to start buying Maalox in the 5 gallon jugs.

But the more I think about it, the more I think this isn’t such a bad thing to be reminded of, especially as part of the daily prayer cycle. As I’ve mentioned recently, I have been “released to my own recognizance”, severed from my former employer and without immediate job prospects. I’m approaching it with a combination of stoicism and graveyard humor. I’ve been here before, but it wasn’t fun. I have a plan, but I know that saying – “Menchen tracht und Gott lacht” (Man plans and God laughs). I know it will all be OK in the end, but how much butt-kicking will I have to endure before my end is OK?

Maybe the point of Yotzer Or is to give us some perspective; to remind us that,whatever we face in our day, it isn’t really the end of the world. It isn’t even close to the end of the world. Daily, we are being taught what John Unger already knows, but (hopefully) without needing to have a gun pointed at us or the roof cave in beneath our feet.

But even more importantly, I think Yotzer Or also reminds us  that within each of us is the ability to yotzer – to form with our own abilities – light that shines both on our surroundings so we can see clearly and also as a beacon to others who need guidance. And that darkness can only come (borei) from God, so it must have a blessed purpose in our life, even if we can’t see it.