Tefillah Tuesday: Yotzer Or

The three paragraphs of Shema Israel are nestled among liturgical blessings: one always recites two blessings before Shema, and afterwards, either one blessing each morning or two each evening.

The first blessing before is an ode to the dawn’s light. Nowadays, our relationship to light is shaped by our easy access to electricity. We stay up late at night and rise long after sunrise, and so our prayers are disconnected from our sleep cycles and the dispensations of dawn and nightfall.

Not so in ancient times. Evening prayers were recited around sunset, and then people ate and soon went off to bed. They rose while it was still dark and said Shaharit at dawn. The Talmud considers the optimal time to begin Shaharit as עמוד השחר, or “the pillar of dawn,” just as the sky begins to lighten, but still before the orb of the sun tops the horizon, known as הנץ החמה, or “the sparking of the sun.” Try to imagine that experience of worship, blessing God for the rising light filling the world, beginning a new day. This is a Jewish parallel to the myth of Orpheus, who played his lyre to make the sun rise, which also finds an echo in Psalm 57.9: “Arise lyre and harp, as I awake the dawn.”

The text of the first blessing before Shema begins: Blessed are You, Adonai, master of the cosmos, יוצר אור ובורא חושך עושה שלום ובורא את הכל, who “forms light and creates darkness, who makes peace and creates all.”  Like most phrases in the prayer book, this is a quotation, or near quotation, of a Bible verse, in this case Isaiah 45.7.

In context, the verse is a message from the prophet to the Persian King Cyrus. Isaiah portrays God not only as the master of nature, but of history as well: it is Hashem who enabled Cyrus to defeat Babylon and God who now guides Cyrus to permit Israelite return to Zion. The verse itself reads that God is not only עושה שלום, the one who makes peace, but also בורא רע, who makes trouble, or literally evil. The term evil sounds extremely heavy here, but in context, Isaiah means no metaphysical assertion about the source of wickedness. Paired with making peace the Bible term means something like “God makes both weal and woe, both well-being and trouble, both the joy of peace and the pain of war.”

As this verse was repurposed for worship, however, it seems the prayer book’s editors found it just too shocking or scandalous to apply the wordרע to God. They couldn’t quite bring themselves to attribute evil to heaven, or expect someone to daven that phrase with a full heart. So they softened the edges just a bit, and called God the Creator of all. As the Talmud [Berakhot 11b] says, this is “elevated language,” or a well-placed euphemism.

Myself, I think this was a small failure of nerve. The euphemism did not change the meaning of the phrase altogether. The Rabbinic Jews who davened these words originally knew the Biblical allusions, and they knew what word originally stood behind the euphemism. That is how euphemisms work, after all: we know that a nasty idea is cloaked within sweeter language. Worshipers were not saved from having to think of God as the author of suffering.

But they were saved from having to say it out loud. I think that is understandable, but mildly wimpy, a minor spiritual cowardice.

Of course, I still daven the prayer book as it is composed and shared among all Jews the world over, including our shared euphemism. But as I say this blessing each morning, I mentally register that even though the dawn sky is pervaded with sunlight, it will always coexist with darkness; that there is a cosmic order, along with some stubborn chaos. When you daven, it is salutary to remember that as wonderful as the world is, רע, the bad, is also a real and authentic part of God’s world. Spiritually mature people can even find a way to mention it in prayer.