Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 28 August 2021 / 20 Elul 5781

The Blessings of the Shema: (Part 1)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
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"The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched
– they must be felt with the heart."
(Helen Keller)

The first blessing begins: “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates all.”

Why did our Sages see fit to begin the blessings of the Shema with the concept of light and darkness? How are they connected to each other? Before we begin saying the Shema — the ultimate declaration of our acceptance of Hashem’s majesty and dominion over us — our Sages wanted to make sure we know just how extraordinary the Creation really is. They enacted this first blessing to tell us that we should dedicate a moment to contemplating the luminaries — the sun, moon and stars — and how they collaborate to bring us warmth and light. How their existence gives us life.

With this understanding, the wording of the blessing is actually quite intriguing. Hashem “forms light” and yet He “creates darkness.” According to the Abarbanel, the word “creates” implies creating something from nothing, ex nihilo, whereas the words “forms” and “makes” imply the formation of something from preexisting material. Therefore, the inference of the blessing is that Hashem formed light only after having created the darkness.

As mentioned previously, our Sages teach that darkness is analogous to bad, and light is analogous to good. If so, the blessing seems to suggest that Hashem created evil, as opposed to good that was fashioned only afterwards. The Abarbanel explains that since Hashem is infinitely good, there was no necessity to create light, because light is the embodiment of goodness. Evil, however, has no part within Hashem, as it were, and it therefore needed to be created.

However, paradoxically, according to the Rabbis it is the creation of darkness that allows the light to be perceived and appreciated. Without darkness, there would be no way to recognize just how wondrous the light really is. As the prophet Micha so eloquently expresses (7:8), “Although I sit in the darkness Hashem is my light.”

However, due to their conflicting realities, it requires Hashem’s “arbitration” to bring these two disparate entities of darkness and light to a state of coexistence so they can harmoniously serve Him in our physical world. This is why the blessing ends with the statement that Hashem “makes peace and creates all.”

Many years ago, I heard a thought-provoking explanation about the optimal definition of peace from Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, one of the greatest scholars and authorities in Jewish Law from the previous generation. The very best form of peace is not one that is made after two sides have had a falling out with each other. Ultimate peace is when two differing entities understand that living in harmony together is beneficial for both of them without their having fought about it first. Optimal peace is the ability of both sides to recognize the necessity of the other. Darkness is truly a powerful entity, but the darkness “understands” that even a small amount of light can dispel it. Rabbi Auerbach quoted the famous adage, “A little light dispels the darkness” (see Chovot Halevavot, sha’ar 5; Chofetz Chaim, Machaneh Yisrael volume 1, chapter 18, and Nidchei Yisrael, chapter 22; and many Chassidic sources). It is as if the darkness comprehends that once the light appears, it is no longer its task to shroud everything in darkness. For this reason, light is the symbol of peace.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 1:1) explains that just as the light slowly increases from dawn until the sun rises, so too, the final redemption will begin slowly, with Hashem’s light beginning to penetrate the darkness, pushing away the exile — until finally everything will be bathed in the most brilliant and pure light of the redemption. May we all merit experiencing it very, very soon.

According to Rabbi Auerbach’s interpretation, our blessing has just taken on a new and astonishing dimension. In the same way that darkness submits itself to the light, so too there will come a time when the evil in the world will yield to the good. As we await that precious era, we would be well served to remember Rabbi Auerbach’s valuable lesson and aspire to live lives of true peace with all those around us.

To be continued…

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