Light and Darkness

By Rabbi Benjamin Spratt
March 21, 2017

In the beginning of God creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was unformed and chaos, with darkness upon the surface of the deep (Genesis 1:1-2).

Our tradition imagines a universe that begins in chaos and darkness. The gift of divine creation brings order and light into existence, the beginning of divinely-defined “goodness,” but the darkness remains.

As parents, our children are the lights of our world, and we work fervently to shape an environment that will nurture and support their brilliance. At a time when darkness and chaos overshadow much of the globe, we create sanctuaries of warmth, love, and connection. But the shadows remain, at times just beyond our door, at times creeping into even the most stable of homes. Global fear, rising anti-Semitism, national division, vocal racism and bigotry, terrorism, war, disease, and headlines are nearly a constant stream of fear-inducing reminders that there is a world of darkness. As we hold our children, with their spirits and hearts shining brightly, we wonder how to best help them amidst a wilderness of uncertainty.

How do we open their eyes to bigotry, without crushing their faith in humanity? How do we let them know about the rising acts of racism and anti-Semitism abroad and right here in New York City, without plunging them into a sense of fear of others? How do we equip them with the tools to navigate the shadows without prompting them to withdraw from the world?

We may be a people with fears and anxieties, but this wilderness terrain is also part of our collective Jewish consciousness. It was in the wilderness where Moses first encountered God at the burning bush, and where a people entered into a covenant with God at Mt. Sinai. The wilderness has been for us a place of fear and doubt, but also of faith, and acceptance of profound responsibility.

And it may be for this very reason that the single sentence God repeats in the Bible more than any other, over 80 times, is this: al tira - Be not afraid. In the wilderness of uncertainty, God does not whisk away the fragility, nor take away the anxiety. God simply offers the only path forward—one that is not defined by fear.

The following are a few teachings from our tradition, intended to offer some tools for us as parents:

Embrace the Questions

And when, in time to come, your child asks you, saying, 'What does this mean?' you shall say, 'It was with a mighty hand that God brought us out of Egypt, the house of bondage...' (Exodus 13:14).

By the age of 2, most of our children are already noticing difference in the world around them. From gender appearance to physical features, these noticed differences begin to inspire questions. This developmental milestone actually heralds one of the most sacred elements of life in Judaism—questions are the openings for wisdom. From the early rabbis, we learn that the wisest of people are the ones who learn from all people, and that Truth can only be discovered in dialogue with another. Specifically, a question from a child is the inspiration for Judaism's most-told story: the Exodus, a tale of darkness and light, of oppression and freedom.

When our children begin to notice difference —differences in appearance, differences in identity, differences in belief—our first task should be to embrace their questions and validate them. Behind these questions is the desire to understand oneself in the context of others. Out of these questions comes the opportunity to let learning dissolve fear. When our children feel that the noticing of difference is valid and embraced, it helps ensure that we are not imposing our own anxieties and fears onto their noticing, something which might move them to shy away from understanding. Our children should notice difference in skin color and accent and attitude, and even if we don’t know in the moment how to address questions of such difference, embracing the questions helps keep open the door to learning.

As our children hear about darkness in the world—wars, terrorism, acts of racism—we may panic and fret about how we can possibly talk about these things without inspiring endless nightmares or psychological scarring. So our first, and perhaps most important task, is simply to slow down enough to ensure our children know that their questions are sacred.

Encourage the Learning

Who is wise? One who learns from every person (Pirkei Avot 4:1).

Once we embrace the questions, we have the opportunity to foster wisdom in our children. Fear is most often fueled by ignorance, and the more we know and understand, the less our fear will automatically close the doors of possibility. As our children inquire, our responsibility is to help give them paths to learning, not necessarily to be the providers of answers. By sheer dint of my identities and experiences, I have experienced violence for being Jewish, but have no comprehension of what it means to be a person of color or a refugee fleeing war. In a city such as ours, we can help our children pursue answers to their inquiry with people who have direct experience; not only will the answers likely hold more truth than we could offer, the process of attaining such answers will set our children on a path of wisdom—believing that each person has something to teach.

Most of us, even as adults, really only observe the world through our own eyes. Which means often the best way for us to learn is to understand how a subject maps onto our own life and experiences. The telling of the Passover story intends to remind us of the narrative of being oppressed, being marginalized, being the stranger. And then the biblical move is to see that “stranger” self-identification as the impetus to lift up the stranger in our midst. That is, understanding our own story helps us understand and empathize with the story of another. We may use our own stories, the stories of our family, the stories of our different heritages or ethnicities or religions, to help shape a deeper understanding of self, and then use such stories to create linkages to the narratives of others.

One very helpful tool is to show how learning and experience often reduces fear. We can remind our children of the first time they tried to ride a bicycle, or the first time they got on stage, or the first time they spoke to a new classmate. And then, we can talk them through what happened as they learned more and tried something again and again. This personal narrative can create a pathway for how to not be paralyzed by fear in other contexts—learning and exposure may be our most powerful tools to bring light into darkness.

Affirm Values

And God created humanity in the image of God, in the divine image God created the human (Genesis 1:27).

We cannot promise our children that their loved ones will never suffer illness, nor that they will always be protected from harm. When we promise sanctuary from things beyond our control, we set ourselves up to be liars and failures in the eyes of our children, for no matter our best efforts they will encounter the shadows of the world. But this does not mean that we must simply throw our children into the waters of chaos and uncertainty. Rather, we can affirm a way of processing a world of both light and darkness.

Leo Baeck once called Judaism a religion of “ethical optimism.” That is an amazing affirmation for a German Jew who had been deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and who chose to stay with his community in that concentration camp despite attempts to attain his freedom. But as Viktor Frankl, another Theresienstadt survivor teaches, we can’t control what the world does to us, but we have complete control over how we choose to respond to it. When our children learn about acts of hate, we have the opportunity to help them understand what is behind such hate, and how we can respond to it. What causes us to feel anger and hate towards another person? How do we deal with such feelings? How might a person feel who is hated by another? How should we respond to such actions?

As our children ask questions and follow a path of learning, they will inevitably start to see some of the darkness of this world. In these spaces, we have the opportunity to affirm our core beliefs—that divinity is within each person, that our narratives of suffering means we are obligated to help those who suffer, that we believe we can help move the world towards greater light and hope. These values will help give our children the tools to place difficult experiences and events into a larger landscape of direction—yes humanity can be cruel, but we all have innate worth; no, we cannot lift up every suffering person in the world, but we should always try to do something; yes, the world can be scary, but the arc of history does bend towards greater justice and compassion, and our tradition believes we are meant to help God move the world forward.

One of my favorite exercises with children involves a handful of oranges. We can take time to notice all the differences—in size, in shape, in smell, in the bruises or bumps. And then we peel the oranges and mix up their order. When you go beneath the surface, you start to see that they have more things in common than before, and it might be nearly impossible to identify which inner orange belongs with each outer peel. The more we can offer our children tools of value and worldview, the more we can help them navigate a complex world. In this way, they can come to open their eyes wider to darkness without losing sight of the light that can illumine any space.

Let Them Cross the Street

The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to be wholly afraid (Rabbi Nachman of Bratslov).

My list of fears for my children are innumerable. At times I lie awake in bed struggling to calm my heart and mind enough to embrace the night. Fears, foreign and domestic, of violence and disease, are always lingering in the background. As adults, some of us take an approach of covering our head with a pillow, ignoring newsfeeds, and hoping that in ignorance we can escape such fear. Others, we obsess over it, trying to learn what’s at the root of every possible disaster in the hopes we might then know how to navigate the wilderness without injury. But this famous line of Rabbi Nachman’s articulates a different approach—we cannot and should not ignore the deep chasm of uncertainty in the world; our lives hover over that reality every day. But nor should our fear paralyze us in that position. He encourages the image of a bridge, that is, a pathway of journey. No one seeks to dwell upon a bridge; its function is to help us cross towards a destination before us. If we run away from the abyss, or cower on the bridge, we will never reach our destination.

On some level, intellectually we know that our children have a far greater risk of harm from crossing a Manhattan street than all of the possibility of illness and violence combined. And yet somehow we reach a point where we believe our children possess enough tools, awareness, and judgment to be able to cross the street. At first the crossing is done while holding our hand. But eventually we come to trust they are able to navigate the street themselves.

We want them to have enough awareness, and even enough fear, to stop long enough to assess the world around them. We want to make sure they know the cues that suggest safe passage, and we want to make sure they are headed in the right direction. We help them learn to not only trust the “walk” sign, but to also observe the choices of individuals around them. And we help them believe that it is worth walking in the world in spite of the risks.

May this be our sacred task as parents. May we nurture a rising generation of questioners and seekers, may we help them deeply understand themselves as a pathway to understanding others, and may we be the cautious optimists that help our children reach towards hope and dream with their eyes open to the world.
In the wilderness, we find our strength and purpose in each other. It is the task of this sacred community to orient us towards the values which give ethical compass and humane purpose to our lives. As individuals, as families, as a community, we fortify each other when fear consumes us. We can’t wish away the wilderness of uncertainty. But thank God we can make our way in it together.

May we recognize that the best position to be in is not fetal, but upright, with a sense of the decency that has been our birthright since we first came to the wilderness mountain—and may that birthright keep us strong and true amidst all the tempting winds that blow.

Out of the darkness, God creates light. May we teach our children to do the same.

This article was written by Rabbi Benjamin Spratt, Rabbi-in-Residence, and published in RSS Connect Volume 3, Issue 3.

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