The Dark Night of the Soul
Darkness is an overarching theme of Jacob’s life.
In darkness, he finds his mission, when he rests his head in the desert night and dreams of the mystical ladder rooted in earth and touching heaven.
In darkness, he finds both deception and love, as he weds and beds the unexpected bride Leah, instead of his beloved Rachel.
In darkness, he finds confrontation with his estranged brother Esau.
And in darkness, he encounters redemption when he wrestles the unnamed angel on the bank of the river Jabbok.
Darkness is a thick and velvet canvas on which Jacob finds the circumstances of his life painted, sometimes in bitter tones and sometimes in golden hues.
Is it not the same for us?
If you Google the term, ‘the dark night of the soul’ – you get a myriad of quotes, some serious and some humorous, some wise and some trite, ascribed to authors as diverse as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Terry Pratchett. But the original reference is to a Catholic mystical treatise, in poetic form, called ‘La noche oscura del alma’, written by a 16th century Spanish mystic called St. John of the Cross. In its original reference, the ‘dark night of the soul’ refers to a spiritual state rather than the emotional state that it refers to in pop culture. (Fitzgerald famously quipped: “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning”). It is the blending of the mystical and the emotional state that Jacob encounters on the bank of the river.
Many of us know the story of Jacob and what a transformative moment this becomes for him. The Torah tells us:
“Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” 32:25-30
Upon his victory, he changes his name to Yisrael, ‘one who has wrestled with God and men and who has prevailed.’ While St. John of the Cross may have coined a phrase that captures the existential aspect of Jacob’s struggle, we can look to another faith tradition to help us understand the deeper meaning of Jacob’s encounter. In Islam, there exists the term ‘Jihad’, Arabic for ‘striving or ‘struggling. While Jihad has become controversial in popular parlance because of its contemporary association with political Islam, the ancient theological significance of the term is far more nuanced and non-violent. The ‘Greater’ Jihad of Sufi mysticism refers to the struggle of oneself within oneself to align one’s will with the Will of God. This is then perhaps similar to our concept of struggling with our ‘yetzer hara’ (evil inclination).
Jacob’s encounter with God is both struggle and experience; the physical and existential are united as both his flesh and soul are marked. The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger) comments that Jacob’s struggle was one of both body and soul and that this integration of body and soul is called ‘shalom’, wholeness. Our spirituality is not that of disembodied self-abnegation but of embodied rootedness.
I continue to believe in the genius of the Jewish calendar and don’t find it accidental that we read about darkness this time of year. The Rabbis teach that it is Abraham who gave us Shacharit, since he arose early to offer up Isaac on the Mount. By that same token, the Rabbis teach us that Isaac bestowed upon us Mincha, the afternoon prayer, since he came to meditate in the field when meeting Rebecca. And closer to the winter solstice, we read Parashat Vayishlach, where Jacob’s archetype grants us the power of prayer, vision and dreams in the night. The Rabbis ascribe to him the gift of Ma’ariv, the evening prayer. Right before Hanukkah, before we strike our first match and light our first light, we are asked to journey into the darkness with Jacob and invite the potential for transformation, and in its wake, the blessing of ‘shleimut’, renewed wholeness.
Many of us may be uncomfortable with the founding mythos of Hanukkah. For years, I surreptitiously ignored the Maccabean account. Its bellicose particularism did not sit easy with me. But reading the Book(s) of Maccabees anew, I have discovered fresh insights in its narrative of resistance. If we approach the text much like we do Jacob’s struggle, then we can feel strengthened by the idea of doing battle during this pandemic, and lighting an internal and eternal flame during the dark night of the soul.
As the days shorten, we are engulfed by darkness in a multitude of ways. The virus is rampant across our country and our Iowa is particularly hard struck. What this present time asks of us, among the ruins of our isolation, is yet more discipline. We are fatigued, we are scared and we are lonely. We yearn for normalcy and ‘shleimut’, wholeness. We yearn to gather in friendship and love. Still, we will journey deeper into the night and wrestle, on the banks of our own Jabbok, and prevail, ‘ki alah hashachar’, because the dawn is breaking.
Jacob was scared. He was scared of the confrontation with Esau, but he also feared the confrontation with himself. Judah Maccabee and his compatriots were also scared. They had been resisting Antiochus for years and they too had seen their world and their Holy Torah plunged into chaos. But each of them girded their soul with strength and their struggle led to triumph. During this year of the plague, I have taken comfort in a mishnah from Pirkei Avot: ‘Eizehu gibor? Hakovesh et yitzo’ – ‘who is strong? One who conquers one’s inclination.’ (Avot 4:1) This moment calls for resolve, compassion and vision, a belief in protecting the vulnerable and a hope for the future. We may all struggle, dear ones, but we will also prevail. We will kindle our lamps and ring in the dawn. The light will grow ever-steadily.