Monday, October 26, 2009

Polarities in Balance — The morning prayer experience

Last year, I wrote this dvar Torah for a class on Biblical theology. It centers around a theology of tensions, of looking for polarities in the course of every day life and a middle path that transcends them. It speaks of complicating the picture, of finding beauty in between. There will a series of posts on this, too.

For now, exploring the morning Shacharit service. For later, some stories and thoughts about living in Israel, which will include tales of laughter and joy, reflection of all kinds.

And away we go.

Bearing witness to wonder

Each morning, the liturgy takes us on a metaphysical journey to the origins of existence. As early as the very first prayer of the morning Shacharit service, we meditate on creation, taking us back to the Beginning, a world of polarities in balance and with God as the ultimate sovereign of the universe who literally creates everything. Every day, each individual is forced to contemplate the radical amazement of the world around her.

We are not allowed to become normalized to the wonder of creation, as it would be so easy to do — we must attempt to engage with the process each morning. Yet beyond celebrating a God of a singular Creation, the prayer extends in subsequent paragraphs to express that we are witness to radical amazement each day, that God perpetually bears a new creation, hamehadesh b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid maaseh breisheit (God, in his goodness, renews creation day after day) — the miracle continues and we have an obligation to acknowledge it as such.

But is this impossible? Can we really take hold of the weight of creation each day? “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,” British novelist George Eliot once wrote, “it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”1

We will never actually bear witness to the face of God, to the transcendent power of the Infinite. Doing so would give us a similar fate to the Nazis in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Last Ark, whose faces melt from the Awe of the Arc of the Covenant — the power of the squirrel’s heartbeat literally has the power to destroy us if we had the knowledge of how nature actually functions in a cosmic sense.

But pausing to reflect on moments of radical amazement, no matter how accustomed we may be to them, is a divine obligation.2 Particularly during the morning hours, when the sun tangibly alters and affects our lives, we vocalize God as the Creator.3 In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “He who has ever gone through a moment of radical insight cannot be a witness to God’s non-existence without laying perjury to the soul.”4 Will we bear witness to wonder each morning? Perhaps not. But we have to try.

With the clear underlying goal of sanctifying creation in the first bracha (prayer) during Shacharit, it is noteworthy that the liturgical codifiers choose to refer to the creation narrative as expressed in Isaiah 45:7, not Genesis. Additionally, the liturgist alters the original text of Isaiah from “Yotzer or u’vore choshech, oseh shalom u’voreh ra” (Who fashions light and creates darkness, ordaining peace and creating evil) to a more hygienic version of the text, where God is a creator of everything, “hakol,” not specifically of evil.5

The narrative of Genesis features a creation story of separation from the primordial “tohu vavohu” (translated as “unformed and void” by the Jewish Publication Society, as “welter and waste” by Robert Alter) into a sense of order and clarity. God creates light and separates the light from the darkness. But God does not create the darkness in this narrative. God separates the waters, creating a firmament (rakia) to separate the upper waters from the lower waters. But neither does God create the waters in this narrative. There was “something” in the “before,” and seemingly God separates a giant glob of primordial Play-do into the various colors which are recognizable by humans and other creations.

The Isaiah narrative involves God more intimately in the creation process than Genesis, as one who “creates” in the modern sense of the word. God creates sets of polarities, both light and darkness and good and evil, mutually complementary entities which cannot exist without the other.6 Commenting on the first half of this beracha, the Rabbis of the Talmud rhetorically ask, “Shall we not say, ‘Who forms light and creates brilliance (nogah)?’” Rav Ullah responds, saying that the original wording is retained “so as to mention the attribute of day at night and the attribute of night in day.”7

Arguably, the most spectacular moments of nature occur when night and day meet. We hike to the top of a mountain so that we can see a sunrise better and at the very rim of the earth. When I was on a ship at sea, each night I would head outside at sunset to watch the giant yellow ball of the sun dip to the horizon and meet the seemingly never-ending blue of the water. On rare occasions the synthesis of these refracted colors radiated green light across the sky in the brief moment in nature known as a “green flash.”8

The most remarkable moments in nature occur when two poles meet in mutual harmony. We must be conscious of both what we see and what we don’t see at any particular time — because the truest beauty and awe occur when opposites paradoxically meet.9 In the same way that we sanctify the night during the day, our first beracha during Maariv recognizes the mutual process of recreation at both ends of the day: “You create day and night, rolling light away from darkness and darkness away from light.”10We take stock of what we can see and also its opposites, which mutually define the entity as what it is in the first place.

While we do not say “Who fashions light and creates evil” during Shacharit, but rather use the euphemism “and creates everything” (u’voreh et hakol), the Rabbinic mind could not help but think back to the original context in Isaiah. Notably, God remarks that each day’s creation is “tov” in Genesis 1, but there is no mention of “ra,” until the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden.11 Like his inclusion of both or and hoshech, for the narrator of Isaiah, one element, either tov or ra, cannot exist in a vacuum. As twentieth century theologian, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflects:

“Good and evil, tob and ra (sic.), here have a much wider meaning than good and evil in our terminology. The words tob and ra speak of an ultimate division in the world of man in general which goes beyond moral discord, so that tob would perhaps also mean “full of pleasure” and ra “full of pain.” Tob and ra are the categories for the deepest division of human life in every aspect. The essential thing about them is that they appear as a pair and that, in their state of division, they belong inseparably together.”12

Engrained in our happiness and successes necessarily rests conflict and insecurity.13

We do not dwell on the problems of theodicy first thing in the morning, however, and therefore the redactors of the siddur replace ra with the “hakol” of the siddur. This creates the phrase oseh shalom u’voreh et hakol, which the Rabbis interpret to mean that “peace is equal in weight to everything.”14

We are living in a world of continual balancing acts and also a world where peace is at the core of our existence, which renews itself on a daily basis. It’s quite comforting to read peace as a part of the original creation narrative, even more so to repeat daily in echo of His renewal that God is recreating peace each day.

Above all else, the text of this prayer tells us that we must be aware of both light and darkness, of moments when we are engrained in the rational human world and when we “abandon the pretense of being acquainted with the world.”15 We must devote our attention both to halakha and aggadah, to keva and kavanah, the Rabbinic schools of Ishmael and Akiva,16 to science and religion.17 In these terms, reading one item to the exclusion of another perhaps is more than ignorance, but a modern formula for heresy of the highest order! Reading one pole as the sole element in any part of life limits God’s power and the human being’s capacity to encounter her own potentials.18

As we go through our lives, we encounter opposites at every turn. We cannot preach that people should pray exclusively from the words of the page, nor can we say that people should exclusively meditate from the words of the heart. Modern Jews need both a thriving diaspora and the uniqueness of the Jewish state.

As we say each day, God is a creator of light and darkness, of peace and of all things. We read creation and recreation of life itself on a daily basis as continually reinforcing actions.

The true beauty occurs in a synthesis of two positions. It is a theological green flash across our lives.


1. I saw this quote in a New York subway advertisement for Barnes and Noble. It originates in Eliot’s book, Middlemarch. See George Eliot, Middlemarch, (New York: Modern Library, 1984 edition)

2. For commentary on appreciating individual moments, see Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, (New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux, 1955), 131

3. Dr. Ben Sommer noted that the laws of saying Qeriat Shema are in place so that the individual will take note of the sun during its rising. Our obligations in prayer are uniquely tied to the patterns of nature and thus change as the sun rises earlier throughout the course of the year.

4. Heschel, 132-133

5. Rabbi Reuven Hammer explains that this prayer serves to respond to the Persian outlook of there being a god of darkness and god of light; this prayer illustrates God as a creator of both light and darkness. See Or Hadash, ed. Reuven Hammer, (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 2008), 30

6. While I acknowledge the important issues of theodicy in claiming that God is a creator of evil, I do not wish to dwell on them in this context. Rather, I note the synthesis of the dialectics.

7. Babylonian Talmud, 11a. I learned several of the sources in this paper with Rabbi Elie Kaunfer at the 5768 Hadar Shavuot Retreat.

8. For more information of the “green flash,” see

9. Rabbi Gordon Tucker reflected once in a talk about Torah Min HaShamayim that perhaps we should use the term “paralaxical” in similar contexts to the current one. This invented word reflects the idea that paradoxes often run in parallel harmony and somehow complement each other, rather than the assumption that they are irreconcilable, as the definition of the word “paradox” suggests.

10. Translation from Siddur Sim Shalom, ed. Jules Harlow, (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 2005 edition)

11. It should be noted that God does not dub the second day’s creation as “good.”

12. Krista Tippet, Speaking of Faith, (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), 66. It should be noted that Bonhoeffer is specifically referencing the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in this passage. The message relates to my thesis in Isaiah, as well.

13. Ibid., 67

14. See Sifra Behukotai 1:8, Sifrei Bemidbar 42 and Rashi’s synthesis of Rabbinic commentary in his comment to Leviticus 26:6

15. Heschel, God in Search of Man, 131

16. Rabbi Heschel notes the beauty of the tension between these giants as follows: “The diversions and dissensions between the two ‘fathers of the world’ continued on their way throughout the generations. It is just that sometimes we find discrete methodologies, each internally consistent, and sometimes we find the two intellectual subsets included side by side, or intertwined, within a single method. Sometimes one approach appears to have been subsumed by the other, and sometimes they have been synthesized, so that it seems that two rival ways of grasping the world can somehow coexist within the same mind.” See Heschel, Heavenly Torah as refracted through the generations, ed. Gordon Tucker and Leonard Levin, (New York: Continuum, 2005), 33

17. My thoughts on this subject ultimately always go back to Rabbi Heschel’s chapter on “The Problem of Polarity” in God in Search of Man.

18. To expand on this issue, I think much more broadly about the notion of “hyphenated identities” in the modern world, perhaps particularly in America. At all times, we have different elements of our identity tugging at us for attention. While practically tough to articulate in concrete terms, perhaps we should not be thinking from the outset in terms of “sacrificing one item for the sake of the other.” We will arrive to transcending the dialectic by charging forward full-steam with each of our convictions and engaging the clash of ideals only when we reach this juncture (though we clearly know it is inevitable from the outset). With this approach, there is inherently more risk, of course.

I think to the Hebrew word mahloket, meaning argument, but which has the root ch.l.q, meaning both to separate and to smoothen — by charging forward and meeting at the intersection, we smoothen each of the positions.

Dr. Arnold Eisen’s article “Jews, Judaism and the Problem of Hyphenated Identity in America” provides an overview for twentieth century philosophical exploration of the topic. I also draw from Mordecai Kaplan’s characterization of Jews living in two parallel civilizations (though not his conclusions) as a springboard to the discussion on “cultural hyphenates.”

See Eisen, “Jews Judaism and the Problem of Hyphenated Identity in America,” in Ambivalent Jew: Charles Liebman in America, eds. Stuart Cohen and Bernard Susser, (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America Press, 2007) and Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization, (New York: McMillan, 1934), 250.

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