Vayechi: Do our Shadows have Substance?


The Sound of Darkness Part II

There can be no shadow if there is no light.

The Rebbe

Let us continue our discussion on the anatomy of darkness.

In last week’s article, we discussed that darkness is the inherent nature of existence.  Albeit, not as an end in itself, but in order to bring light, yet we must recognize this fundamental darkness for us to free ourselves from its invisible clutches.

Now the question is this: Does darkness have substance, or is it just the absence of light? There are two opinions on the matter. Some sages opt for the former and others for the latter. The mystics go a step further: Darkness has both dimensions.

In psychological terms: There is a form of darkness that is merely the absence of light. For instance, when someone makes a mistake in judgment due to ignorance or inexperience. The confusion and error is a state of darkness, yet it is does not have its own substance, it is not necessarily malicious. Certain information and experience could have illuminated the situation and not allowed for the error.

Similarly, a child could be deprived of a nurturing parent, which would cause a level of insecurity, but it may not become a force of its own, and with a special measure of nurturing one can supplement and provide for the proper nourishment and validation of the child’s identity.

There is however, a level of abuse, which actually creates a darkness and fear with “a life of its own.” Not merely an absence of something, that can be supplemented, but an actual force that now has to be dealt with.

There are people who maliciously cause destruction, not out of ignorance, but because they may be corrupt or greedy. Ignorance may have been the initial cause that led them to that place, but at this point it has become a very real part of their personality.

What about the primordial Tzimtzum – is it an absence of light or does it have substance of its own? The answer is both: The Arizal says that the Tzimtzum means the concealment of the Divine light (energy), in order to leave “space” for our independent existence to emerge. Should the light be revealed, there would no longer be “space” for anything else. Yet, the Tzimtzum is very real, and it originates from the Divine power to conceal, the power of din and gevurah. It’s not merely the absence of light, but a force of its own (“hein hein gevurosov”). As Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains in Tanya that the “Tzimtzum” is called “keilim,” it has substance like a container. The Tzimtzum is not an absolute void. It contains – like “dark matter” — the “letters” of the residue (“reshimu”) within the “black hole.”

So the Tzimtzum is both absence of light and also has substance (“dark energy,” the Divine energy of concealment and darkness, and “dark matter,” the “containers”).

Important to note that either way, both dimension of darkness are not an end in themselves, but in order to introduce an even deeper light.

Psychologically speaking, we need to achieve two things in dispelling the darkness in our own psyches and lives. First, we must introduce light – true knowledge that illuminates and beings clarity. We must also bring in love and compassion, which nurtures the soul, like water that revitalizes a wilted flower. Second, in the areas where the darkness has manifested itself to the point where is has a life of its own (substance), we need to find ways to channel that “life” (energy) into positive areas, and ultimately transform it into a force for light. Like containers or words – we use the actual dark matter of the material universe to express and channel the sublime.

Indeed, we can say that darkness as absence of light can never truly be elevated or transformed, because it has no substance of its own; it is nothing more than the absence of light, and thus is dispelled by shining a light. Darkness as substance can actually be redeemed and transformed.


This discussion on light and darkness are not mere academic exercises, but actually an attempt to dissect the essential stuff that makes up our very existence. The story of Genesis tells it to us the way it is: “It was night and it was day…”

The Earth was first covered in darkness, then there was light. At first darkness and light were mixed together in one light/dark snowball. Then G-d divided between them, and named the light “day” and the darkness “night.”

The cycle of night and day, evening and morning – repeated in Genesis on each day of the week – is the cycle of life.

We must learn about this cycle, assimilate it and align every aspect of our daily lives with this rhythm. This is called learning how to swim. To navigate the waves of our lives we must learn to recognize their cycles.

Have you ever tried to swim against the waves? When you do, your energy gets drained faster than your flailing arms. If you keep fighting, the waves can bring you down. But when you swim with the waves and allow them to carry you, their energy propels you forward, like the air that lifts the flapping wings of a bird.

Well, when it comes to our everyday life we always seem to be fighting the waves. That may be the reason so many of us are exhausted and overcome by fatigue.

Two primary reasons are the cause for this futile and weary battle. One, we are not aware or familiar with the cycles of life. They are like unexpected waves that catch us by surprise, and by the time we are struck by them it is often too late to begin swimming. Second, human nature gravitates toward the comfortable and the static. We are therefore averse to always swimming the waves. We just want to be left alone in peace.

For this reason we read and reread the Biblical story of the descent into Egypt followed by the ascent from there. The cycle of darkness and light manifests itself in real time as Jacob and his sons descend into the constraints of Egypt/Mitzrayim. First comes the darkness: Joseph’s being sold into slavery and ending up in prison in Egypt. Then comes the light: Joseph’s ascent to leadership, and finally his reconciliation with his family, their descent into Egypt, where they live in the finest part of the land. Indeed, Jacob’s last seventeen years in Egypt were his best years. After Jacob and his sons’ deaths, comes the serious darkness: The Egyptian bondage and genocide that would last for a bitter 210 years. Finally, comes the light of the redemption from Egypt, which gives birth to the great Jewish nation, who then proceed to receive the Divine mandate at Sinai.

The darkness of Mitzrayim decelerated from absence of light to a true and real state of substantial darkness [As reflected in the ninth plague — darkness with substance]. The redemption from Egypt was not just about eliminating the absence of justice, but also leaving the land enriched and more than before – “with great wealth,” as promised to Abraham.

The Biblical account of Jacob and his family’s the descent into Egypt (in these week’s chapters) is essentially the story of our own lives. Life is all about descents and ascents. Beginning from the descent of the soul into this material world, we will go though many more descents. Some are an absence of light, some a darkness of substance. Yet, every descent has a corresponding ascent. Indeed, the purpose of the descent is to reach a place higher than the one that preceded the descent.

As our sages tell us:

“There is a wheel that turns in the world.”

Life is like a wheel. The wheel of life turns up and down throughout the experiences of life. Human nature is such that when we on the top of the wheel, we are in good spirits. But in truth only a fool feels content, for the wheel of life is constantly turning. One who is on the bottom of the wheel and cries about his plight is also a fool, for he too is on the turning wheel.

The mystery of life is not about achieving nirvana; it is about navigating the vicissitudes.

Light and dark, day and night, joy and pain, ups and downs  – this is the nature of existence. Life is all about cycles that orbit a broad spectrum spanning from the brightest light to the darkest gloom, and back again.

Life is not static. As much as we would like to just stop moving, the fact remains that the time and space we occupy is always moving, no less than the spinning earth beneath our feet. The secret to success in this world is to make our peace with the cycles of light and dark in our lives and in the world around us. We must learn to swim and not fight the waves.

Two words describe the basic structure of existence: Light and dark. Master these two words, search for them in all your experiences – recognize the waves, and they will become your friends instead of unknown, unexpected forces that flood our lives.

It may appear like we are living in as tunnel, and we await the light at the end of tunnel. But in truth that is not the case. We are not living in a tunnel; we are living inside a wave, inside a wheel, if you wish. A spinning wheel that may appear motionless on the surface, but is actually turning all the time. The wheel is made up of darkness and light.

We have two choices: Resist the movement, or ride the waves.

Do not be deceived by the fact that you may not see the wheel turning upward. Because like a spiral staircase (“shvindel trep” in Yiddish), we turn our backs to the destination just before we reach its peak.

May we all be blessed with the smallest and shortest downturns and the longest and greatest upturns – revealed and obvious blessings of health, prosperity and peace.


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