December 15, 2005
Out of the Shadows
Parshat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)
It is the middle of the night. I hear a strange sound in the living room.
Heart pounding, I get out of bed, grope awkwardly through darkness for the light switch ... push up ... nothing happens. I try another switch. No light. I feel desperately alone. My surroundings remain one shadowed mass of space ... my terror grows.... Then I wake up.
I've been having this same, vivid nightmare for months.
Once fully conscious, I turn on the light and sigh relief into the illumination. Safe again in "reality," I tour my apartment -- gratefully able to see that all my stuff is in place. I return to bed and muster up the courage to turn off the lamp and re-enter the obscurity. I wish I still had my childhood nightlight -- back when it was acceptable to be afraid of the dark.
Darkness is frightening. It is the realm of uncertainty, with everything enveloped in a state of unified oblivion. The world we call "real" -- based on substance, physical existence and visible actuality -- is nullified by the blackness of night. In this domain of the unknown, boundaries blur, imagination stirs and possibilities of reality broaden beyond confines of fact. Separate materials and individuals distinguishable with light mesh together into nothing, and when they do, we become insecure. When the possessions and relationships by which we define our selves disappear, we become unsure of who we are. As did Jacob.
"Vayira Ya'akov meod vayetzer lo." Upon sending forth all his possessions in hopes of placating his estranged brother Esav, "Jacob was very afraid and distressed." In other words, without his stuff around to define him, Jake freaked. He suffered a hard blow to his ego, throwing him into identity crisis.
See, the ego exists in material reality, where physical boundaries separate one thing from another. It believes that "I" exists independently from "you" -- with both of us distinct from every thing else. As the product of our transition from infancy (where we feel interconnection and wholeness) into adulthood, it is based on our capacity to name: to define parts from the whole. Its identity is defined in opposition to and in relationship with an "other," and it thrives on its control and possession over any thing distinct from its limited sense of self.
Jacob's distress came from his enormous ego. It inspired his betrayal of his brother -- for the prestige of a birthright -- and a life prioritized by the accumulation of property. When forced to give it up, he began the struggle that always results from an ego-based existence: Jacob's separate sense of self confronted the fear and loneliness at its source. He had tried (as we do today ... with VIP passes and Ferraris rather than birthrights and oxen) to compensate for his sense of lacking by accumulating more material; now he had to confront his motivating force: the terror of isolation from living in a reality of separation.
Suddenly, he had nothing. He sent all his possessions and relations away; in the middle of the night, he was "left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed ... he wrenched Jacob's hip."
In the dark domain of the unknown; of imagination and blurry boundaries, where definitions of separation that encourage the ego to call "reality" real blend back together into one space of nothing, a nameless man attacked Jacob's exposed ego.
He fought as we all fight: against illusions of nothing that we make into "somethings" of value -- to be possessed by our individual selves as compensation for insecurity and loneliness. Within the limitless blackness he struggled with his attachments to the world of limited materials; he battled his definitions of self as opposed to, and seeking ownership over, everything else. He wrestled the fear; the fallacies of scarcity and disconnection -- dislodging his hip in the process. In the depths of shadow, he contested the very idea of separation, for there must be an "other" to fight against.
He combated the nightmare of isolation.... Then he woke up.
His spiritual self became conscious. His ego weakened, and he began to remember the Oneness. The realities of abundance and sustenance; the wholeness (shleimut -- that allows for peaceful being. The Source, whose first act of creation was to bring forth light from darkness, again made Itself manifest in that most fundamental way. Dawn broke; the light switch worked; and his nameless adversary affirmed that Jacob had prevailed over "beings Divine and human" before Jacob returned him to the nothingness of night. The identity crisis was over, and he was renamed: Israel.
Last week I had the nightmare again, but rather than becoming fearful when the lights would not work, I walked into the darkness. I realized I could make my way just fine. I was free: to dance in it; to laugh; to disappear into the primordial unity of darkness, from where I could -- in the image of my Creator -- recreate. As He did in the beginning. From out of shadows: the light and love of a reality I choose to live. A reality where nothing is more valuable than any thing I feel separate from.
Then I asked my parents to buy me a nightlight for Chanukah ... just in case.
Karen Dietsch is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.