The Sound of Darkness and the Year
Joseph could not control his emotions…
[He asked everyone to leave his presence]. No one else was
with him when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. He
began to weep with such loud sobs that the Egyptians could
His brothers were so startled, they could not respond.
‘Please come close to me,’ said Joseph to his
brothers. When they came closer he said: ‘I am Joseph
your brother. You sold me to Egypt. But don’t worry
or feel guilty because you sold me, for G-d has sent me
ahead of you to save lives. There has been a famine
in the area… G-d sent me ahead of you to insure that
you survive in the land and to sustain you through great
deliverance. It is not you who sent me here, but
G-d. He has made me Pharaoh’s vizier, master of his
entire government and ruler of all Egypt – Genesis 45:1-11
Jacob might have had to be brought
down to Egypt in chains, but he merited that [it should
come about as described by the prophet:] ‘I shall
draw them with human cords, with ropes of love.…’”(Talmud,
Shabbat 89b). There was a cow that needed to be placed
in a yoke that did not allow herself to be yoked. What did
they do? They took her calf from her and led it to the place
that they wanted her to plow. The calf began to bleat. When
the cow heard her calf bleating, she went, in spite of herself,
for the sake of her calf. In the same way, G-d wanted to
fulfill the decree [of the Egyptian exile], so He contrived
all these things so that [Jacob and his family] should come
down to Egypt. (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeishev 4). G-d
said: ‘My firstborn child I shall take down [to Egypt] in
disgrace? ... I shall lead his son before him, and he will
follow, in spite of himself.’ (Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit
Hemingway wrote: Life breaks all people, but some are stronger
in the broken places.
What type of world do we live in? So many bad things happen
around us that one cannot help but ask whether we live,
after all, in a cruel world, with little hope for improvement?
Is Hemingway right: Does life break all people? What hope
can we then look forward to? Are we just victims of circumstances
with no real control of our destiny: If we’re lucky
we’ll make it through, and if not, G-d forbid, then
In a fascinating and twisted sense of cosmic irony, the
Biblical Joseph’s suffering illuminates for us one
of the most powerful messages we will ever hear: By facing
the true nature of our dark existence, we access the deepest
form of light.
Twenty-two years passed from the time that Joseph
was sold by his brothers into slavery until the moment when
they reunited. 22 years!
One could have expected that Joseph would have been so
angry that he would never forgive his brothers. Think what
you would do if your siblings tried to kill you and then
sold you into captivity as a pitiful slave, abandoning you
for the rest of your life! I could only imagine the hours
of therapy any one of us would be going to, and the enormous
anger that we would be venting the rest of our lives.
What did Joseph do?
When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, instead
of fury and revenge, Joseph ends up calming his mortified
brothers: “Do not feel guilty,” he tells them,
“for it is not you who sent me here, but G-d,”
in order to save lives!
I mean, Joseph should have been livid and his brothers
should have been soothing him. Instead, it is Joseph who
is the calming voice!
Was Joseph so detached that he forgot all the pain that
his brothers caused him? Hardly. Joseph was anything but
detached. It was Joseph that “could not control his
emotions;” it was Joseph that had dedicated his life
to managing Egypt’s crops in the seven years of plenty,
directing the sale of grain that served as the region’s
food supply in the years of hunger that followed; and finally,
it was Joseph who saved the life of his father and family.
One could hardly call this detached. Joseph was quite invested
in what he saw as his Divine mission: To use his position
of power to save lives, the lives of his family.
The fascinating question is this: What was unique about
Joseph that allowed him to transcend all the anguish that
his brothers caused him, and have the presence of mind and
heart to recognize that “it is not you who sent me
here [to Egypt], but G-d”?! How did Joseph have such
power and clarity? Above all, how can we access this power?
Ostensibly we can explain that Joseph’s descent into
Egypt (V’Yosf hurod mitzraymoh’ – Genesis 39:1) heralded
the beginning of Jacob and his family’s descent, which ultimately
led to the entire Egyptian exile. This descent was foretold
to Abraham (Genesis 15:13-14), and was surely known to Joseph,
as being part of the Divine plan.
As such, Joseph clearly understood that his descent into
Egypt was destined by G-d, not by his brothers. Had his
brothers not sold him into slavery, G-d would have found
another, perhaps a more painful way, to get him and his
family into Egypt.
What was the significance of the descent into Egypt? Mitzrayim
(Hebrew for Egypt) means constraints. The descent into Mitzrayim
represents the spiritual plunge each of us takes when we
enter into this material world, with all the limits and
inhibitions that life on earth imposes upon us. On a cosmic
scale it reflects the very nature of our existence –
which is a result of a quantum leap from the Higher Reality
of Divine Unity into the confines of a dualistic and pluralistic
Joseph understood the big picture, that his predicament
reflects the challenge of life itself – the radical
descent into a material world.
Yet, we still need to understand how this knowledge and
awareness helped Joseph get beyond the pain of his brother’s
atrocity toward him. How was he able to so calmly declare
that they should not feel guilty, for it was G-d and not
them that sent him to Egypt?
Joseph understood the process intellectually. And perhaps
each of us can glean a lesson from Joseph how we must deal
with our own challenges, not to blame others, even the perpetrators,
but to recognize the reasons G-d may have placed us in a
But how did Joseph deal with it emotionally – how
was he able to get beyond the fact that his brothers perpetrated
his sale into slavery, and they did so out of their own
free will, for which they were unquestionably responsible?
And how are we to deal with our challenges emotionally:
Even when our minds know that our predicament is meant to
be, how do we get beyond our feelings of rage and unfairness
at those that may have hurt us?
To answer this question, we need to probe into Joseph’s
mind and try to figure out his perception of life and existence
as a whole, and especially of darkness and difficult life
experiences, reflected in his descent into Egypt.
There are essentially two ways one can tackle a problem:
1/ Deal with the symptoms, 2/ Deal with the roots.
By nature, most of us gravitate to symptomatic solutions.
First of all, we don’t usually deal with a problem
until it hits us in the face. Secondly, even when we do
seek out a cure, we look for band-aids and painkillers to
rid ourselves of the immediate and presenting symptom.
There may be nothing wrong with this approach when dealing
with short term and immediate problems. The trouble begins
when dealing with a long-term problem, one that has deep
roots, and cannot be remedied with a quick fix. Of course,
any long-term challenge requires short-term intervention,
but that’s just for the moment; it can never replace
the need to get to the root cause of the disease.
Similarly and much more so is this true about the dark
areas of our lives – our so-called shadows. Darkness
by definition is shrouded in obscurity. When we have a dark
experience – something that causes us pain, grief
or the likes – we can tackle it in two ways: 1/ We
look at the immediate cause and try to eliminate it, 2/
We search for the root cause that allowed the darkness in
the first place.
Joseph understood that for him to make any sense of his
predicament he must search not for the symptoms of his problems,
but for their roots. He must understand the very nature
of existence that allows for people, even brothers, to hurt
each other in awful ways.
True, each person is responsible for his or her behavior.
But the real question is what kind of world did G-d create
allowing the possibility that people can
harm each other? If the underlying truth is that all people
are but different parts of an integral unity, how is it
that one part can intentionally hurt another? Is it possible
that one hand would attack another on the same body?
The answer lies in understanding the very nature of existence
as we know it, the nature of the descent into the confines
of mitzrayim. What is the essential nature of existence:
Darkness or light?
On a personal and psychological level, most people would
say that life is darker rather than lighter. In the Talmudic
words of the School of Shammai: “It is more pleasant
for a person to not be created than to be created”
(Talmud Eiruvin 13b).
According to Science magazine, the greatest scientific
breakthrough of the year 2003 was the confirmation that
“dark energy” and “dark matter”
is the stuff that makes up the overwhelming majority of
our universe. This is a major development in physics, and
quite a surprising one at that. Because until this discovery
in 2003, all the objects scientists knew about shared one
attribute – they gave off light. Now we know that
the particles that we’re all familiar with (like electrons
and protons) make up only 4 percent of known matter. The
rest is either “dark matter” or “dark
energy,” called by that name because it represents
the bulk of the universe that cannot be seen.
Fascinatingly, this confirms what every mystic, and for
that matter, any Bible reader, always knew: The universe
is first and foremost a dark place. The first description
of the universe in the opening verses of the Bible states
that “the earth was empty (or chaotic) and void and
darkness prevailed over existence.” Only afterwards
does G-d say, “There shall be light,” and light
came into existence.
On its own this Biblical opening is cryptic. The opening
line of the Zohar (Genesis) begins: “In the beginning
of the King’s authority, the Lamp of Darkness engraved
a hollow in the Supernal Luminescence.” This too however
is quite cryptic. The great 16th century mystic,
Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal), in the opening of his classic
work the Etz Chaim (Tree of Life), explains this primal
darkness with what is called the Great Primordial Tzimtzum:
In the beginning (conceptually, not in time) the light of
the Ein Sof (the infinite light) filled all of existence;
G-d then concealed His omnipresent light (energy) in order
to allow “room” for the consciousness of an
In other words there are two types of consciousness, or
two dimensions of reality: Pre-Tzimtzum and Post-Tzimtzum.
The Higher reality (Daas Elyon) is a Divine consciousness
that is all encompassing. The lower reality (Daas tachton)
is an existential consciousness that sees its own existence
as primary and can barely sense a reality outside of its
The tzimtzum is “dark energy” – a type of negative energy
or negative light, void of matter. The letters of the “reshimu”
(a type of “residue” that remains after the tzimtzum) is
“dark matter,” which would “later” evolve into the containers
(“keilim”) of existence. (More on this in a future column).
The fact that these classic works – the Bible, the Zohar
and the Etz Chaim – all open up with a description of the nature of existence
as a dark place, tells us that this information is critical and fundamental to
understanding the nature of existence. We cannot understand our universe and
our lives if we don’t know that the beginning of the universe is rooted in a
state of primordial darkness.
Furthermore: Ironically, we can never overcome the darkness
and difficulties of our lives if we don’t face and
respect the fact that the essential stuff of our existence
is rooted in darkness.
However, with one critical qualification: Darkness alone
is not the goal nor the ultimate essence of existence. It
is only a means to allow existence to come into being. Beneath
– or within – the darkness lies light, indeed,
the deepest light of all. In other words: Darkness is just
another form of light/energy, and its purpose is to reveal
light. But in order to uncover the light we must first recognize
the darkness for what it is. This then allows us to illuminate
the darkness with light, “let there be light.”
During his 22 years in Egypt Joseph came to understand
this essential truth – the fundamental nature of the
existential confines of Mitzrayim. Joseph learned that life
does not become cruel because people do bad things to you.
Life is cruel because G-d created a universe that shrouds
its true purpose and feels disconnected from its source.
A world in which people do not sense their inherent unity
allows the potential for people to hurt each other. Darkness
is not just about having a bad experience (the symptoms),
but about a dark world that allows us to have bad experiences
(the root cause). Negative life experiences are symptoms
of a dark world that does not feel connected to its source.
A simple example: You buy a computer and you don’t
follow the manufacturers instructions. A year passes without
incident. One day your entire computer crashes, with no
reversible way for you to retrieve all your valuable information.
When did the problem begin: When the computer crashed, or
on day one, when you didn’t follow the instructions?
The Bible, as explained by the Zohar and the Arizal tells
us that the world is dark place from the very outset, even
if its symptoms manifest at a later stage.
To master this secret, we ought not wait until something
bad happens to us. Rather, we need to confront the root
cause of what makes it possible for humans to hurt one another.
That’s what Joseph figured out. And this vital point gave
him the power to transcend that darkest chapter of his life.
Joseph learned to focus on the root of the problem, not
its symptoms. His brothers did sell him into slavery unjustifiably;
they did deserve to be punished for their behavior. But,
at the same time Joseph appreciated a deeper fact: Life
itself – existence by its very nature – is a dark place.
Dark – as in having no idea which is the right path to happiness,
to the extent that we can spend a lifetime traveling on
a wrong and even self-destructive course; dark – as in the
fact that our existence is disconnected from its source,
that we don’t feel rooted in our mission, that we can live
our lives and convince ourselves that we are happy even
when we have no idea what the purpose of our life is and
that we even have a purpose.
22 years in Mitzrayim gave Joseph enough time to discover
that darkness didn’t begin and end with his brothers’
actions. Joseph knew that his being in Mitzrayim came from
G-d; that his suffering had purpose and meaning, and was
not just a random result of other people’s crimes.
He did not blame his problems on his brothers, on himself
or on any other scapegoat; he understood that the true challenge
of life is about the darkness of existence, regardless whether
your life is working out or not, regardless whether you
feel the darkness or not. And he knew that G-d created the
dark world in order for him, and for us, to illuminate it,
to use our opportunities to sustain life and save life,
to transform mitzrayim into a source of sustenance and life
for the entire world – a fertile ground that brings
This was the only way for Joseph to redeem his being sold
into slavery, to redeem the 22 years of hardship and being
so brutally severed from his beloved father – that
the purpose of the darkness itself is that Joseph discover
the deeper light within, and bring it to the surface.
That is why Joseph didn’t get angry with his brothers.
On the contrary, he had the unique opportunity to teach
them – and all of us – that the darkness of life that we
all experience is not just on the surface, symptomatic level
of grief we feel at the moment, but the darkness of life
itself, of existence itself – the darkness that G-d Himself
created. Once we know that, we can begin to free ourselves
of its traps and shadowy dark tentacles.
People may have hurt you, situations may have disappointed
you, circumstances may have been unfair. But remember, Joseph
said, “it is not you who sent me here but G-d.”
It is not people, events and circumstances that create a
dark world where there is always potential danger, but it
is G-d who created it.
To hear the sound of darkness, we need to first recognize
the true darkness of our lives. That darkness is not the
immediate pain and despair we may be experiencing at the
moment; those are only symptoms. It is the state of affairs
– the state of being – of existence that ALLOWS
such pain to exist in the first place.
In other words the nature of existence as we know it –
even if your life is going perfectly – is a natural
state of darkness: Disconnected from its source.
The darkness of your immediate pain can perhaps not have
a sound; but the larger backdrop of darkness that frames
all our life experiences definitely has a sound.
But to hear this sound of (dark) silence we need to first
hear the silence of sound – to recognize and be fully
cognizant of the fact that the sounds of our lives, even
the most pleasant ones, are all but part of the cosmic “matrix”
that encases us in a glass box with a glass ceiling. It
may be fancy and expensive glass, or even stained glass,
but it’s still a box.
Once we are aware of the walls that confine us, and we
hear the resounding silence of these loud but hollow walls,
how insignificantly quiet it is in contrast to the higher
reality, we then can begin to perceive what lies beyond
the glass doors, and sense the sound within the silence
of the tzimtzum and beyond.
This is turn allows us into the pre-tzimtzum “universe”
(reality and consciousness), which is beyond silence and
beyond sound, beyond darkness and beyond light – a
place where it all makes sense, because it doesn’t
have to make sense. A place where all our experiences meld
into one seamless whole – everything as an extension
of the ultimate Unity and its infinite manifestations.
But these are just words. It’s easier said than done.
Yet the words are necessary in order to provide us with
a point of reference. We MUST know that our perceived reality
is not the entire picture. We MUST know that this box in
which we live is precisely that: A confined box, shrouded
in layers upon layers, concealing anything beyond or within.
The mystics call it a kelipah – a shell, that protects
but also conceals the fruit within.
Once we know that, we have the power to puncture the invisible
curtain that doesn’t allow us to experience all of
Astounding! G-d’s mysterious infinite power created silence;
we have the power to pierce the Divine silence. But only
after we recognize the reality of this silence, and that
requires that we first realize that the sounds we hear and
think are so loud and powerful are truly very silent and
The sound of the tzimtzum echoes throughout history. Its
reverberations felt in every loss, in every tragedy, in
every injustice. But even without tragedy, the tzimtzum
is the force that allows us to exist but also locks us into
a steel trap where we think that this is where it’s
at. It would be comical if it weren’t so tragic to
one day realize that you have been living a lie. You thought
you were where it’s at, and then you discover that
this is not where it’s at. Our reality is a limited
box that cannot see out of its own window. Cannot even see
that there is a window, that there is a curtain, a door,
an opening. And doesn’t even feel the need for an
opening – we are self-sufficient and have everything
we need. With three cars, four homes, 8 tv sets, two dogs,
three cats and some fish, throw in a spouse or two –
what else do we need?
So, after all is said and done, what is the root of all
our problems? The root it is the existential detachment
created by the tzimtzum.
However, I wouldn’t add the word “stupid”, because how
could we know it was the tzimtzum without the Arizal telling
Yet, as powerful as this cosmic “black hole”
may be, it is not airtight. If you look closely, you can
discern subtle particles within “dark energy.”
If you listen intently you can detect faint sounds within
the “dark matter.”
Can you hear them?