Thoughts on the Yotzer Or Blessing
Back in January, I wrote a piece about the El Adon hymn which is added into the Shabbat morning worship in the first blessing of the Sh'ma, Yotzer Or. You can find my essay in the Notes section of the TBI Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/notes/temple-bnai-israel/a-thought-on-el-adon-by-rabbi-edward-friedman/2853478611339531 . I thought that perhaps this week it was time to write about the blessing that surrounds this poem, the opening blessing of the Kriat Sh'ma, the blessing of creation that introduces this section of the liturgy each day, leading into the Sh'ma.
In the creation story that appears in the opening chapter of Genesis, the first day of Creation is devoted to the creation of light in the world. As with all of the items created in this chapter, they appear at God's word, “Let there be light! And there was light.” God then separates light from darkness and names the light “Day” and the darkness “Night.” This is somewhat confusing since the actual physical bodies which produce light in the universe do not appear in this version of creation until day four when God creates the sun and the moon and the stars. What then was this light? Our sages saw it as an intense, spiritual light that allowed one to see to the ends of the universe and throughout all time. Recognizing that this light was liable to be misused by wicked people, we're told that God hid it away for the righteous in time to come, at the end of days. However, an infinitesimal ray of this supernal light is emitted into the world each day and that light sustains the world. “Rabbi Yehudah said, 'If the light were completely hidden, the world would not exist for even a moment. Rather it is hidden and sown like a seed that gives birth to other seeds and fruit. Thereby the world is sustained.”
If you'd like a second opinion, Dr. Gerald Schroeder, an Israeli physicist, married to a classmate of mine from college, has written about the creation story from the perspective of an Orthodox Jew who also accepts the findings of modern science. In his view, if I recall it correctly, four seconds after the Big Bang, the gravitational forces in the primordial matter were weakened sufficiently to release photons, which produced this first burst of light. Eons later, or in terms of relativity with relation to God, on the fourth day, the heavenly bodies were formed.
Light has a multitude of connotations. The Torah is described as light. Light stands for that which is good and right, all of the positive values in life. Light represents learning, enlightenment, we say. Darkness takes on the opposite, negative values in most cases, yet both are essential elements in life. Every evening, the parallel blessing to Yotzer Or, HaMaariv Aravim, praises God for bringing on the evening.
This brachah of Yotzer Or opens with a blessing derived from Isaiah 45 in which the prophet imagines the Almighty introducing Himself to the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great, who conquered Babylon and allowed the people of Judah to return to their homeland from the Babylonian exile, “I am the Lord and there is none else, I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe.” If you prefer, those words “shalom” and “ra” can be more simply translated as peace and evil. Interestingly, I found one translator who translated “ra” not as evil or woe, but as trouble. So God makes trouble as well as good things, perhaps that's what John Lewis meant by “good trouble.”
Our bracha reads, “Praised are You, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, who forms light and creates darkness, who makes peace and creates all things, hakol. The rabbis quietly changed “ra” into a euphemistic “hakol” “all things” which includes good and evil. If we are about to recite the Sh'ma proclaiming that there is but one God in the world, unlike the dualistic beliefs of the people of the East among whom the rabbis lived, then we must accept that both light and darkness, good and evil, derive from a single source, the one God of the universe. I find it interesting that the prophet uses the image of creation from the second chapter of Genesis which doesn't mention how light and darkness came about, but does speak of God forming things in a hands-on way rather than simply speaking and letting them come into existence. God intentionally formed light and darkness as He created all things, perhaps wrestling with the idea of these contradictory elements in His world..
After this opening, we find two different versions of this prayer, one that we say on weekdays and on holidays that fall during the week and the other recited only on Shabbat. It is the latter version that contains the El Adon poem I mentioned at the beginning. The next line of the prayer on weekdays appears also in the Shabbat version as well: “You illumine the world and its creatures with mercy: in Your goodness day after day You renew Creation.” It is not sufficient to note that God gives light to the earth, but He provides it to all those who dwell on it “darim aleha” including us. This is just one more manifestation of God's compassion for us and for our fellow creatures. The notion that God renews Creation every day is a vital element in Jewish thought. We don't see God simply as the “First Cause” who set the world on its axis and let us handle it from then on. No, God continues to be a force in our lives and every day He renews these acts of Creation and thereby shows us His compassion.
Yotzer Or is a lengthy blessing and on Shabbat it is doubly so. Even so, both versions express pretty much the same message. The world that God has created is a wondrous place and all creatures should therefore respond with words of praise for their Creator. On weekdays, we say, “How manifold are Your works, O Lord; with wisdom you fashioned them all. The earth abounds with Your creations. Uniquely exalted since earliest time, enthroned on praise and prominence since the world began, eternal God, with your manifold mercies continue to love us, our Pillar of strength, protecting Rock, sheltering Shield, sustaining Stronghold.” (Siddur Sim Shalom)
The Shabbat version is a little more elaborate and somewhat longer. It begins by picking up on the word “Hakol” everything in the opening blessing: “Hakol yoducha, v'hakol y'shabchucha v'hakol yomru ein kadosh kadonai. Hakol y'romemucha selah. Yotzer hakol. All creatures praise You, and all extol you and alldeclare there is none holy as the Lord. All exalt you, the Creator of all.” This Shabbat version goes on to describe in poetic language the workings of the heavenly bodies, “You open every day the gates of the heavens, bringing forth the sun from its dwelling place, the moon from its abode.” Following more words of praise, this passage concludes with this ending, “You are our King incomparable in this world, inimitable in the world to come, peerless Redeemer in the days of the Messiah, singular in assuring life immortal (literally: in the resurrection of the dead.). This introduction leads into the El Adon alphabetical poem of praise in which each line follows the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. On weekdays, there is a shorter poem, also alphabetic, but instead of a whole poetic stich for each letter, there is only a single word. Its content is just a more concise statement of the thoughts in El Adon, how all the heavenly bodies join in God's praise.
On Shabbat, there is one more paragraph which I mentioned in my piece on El Adon, which bring a personified Shabbat into the picture and using the opening of Psalm 92, which is entitled a “Psalm, a song for the Sabbath day,” the author of this passage chooses to read it as a Song by the Sabbath day. And what does Shabbat say, “Tov l'hodot ladonay,” “it is good to give thanks to the Lord.” Therefore all of God's creatures should join Shabbat in praising God, and should recognize the Sabbath day as a celebration of God's creative acts and participate in the heavenly chorus that sings God's praises.
From this point on, the two versions join together as one and speak of that heavenly chorus that daily offers its hymns of praise to the Almighty. It is hard to know quite what to do with descriptions of angels singing praises to God. Are we to believe in some kind of spiritual beings who have no physical existence, but surround the Creator and sing His praises endlessly? Or should we consider them as metaphorical terms for the forces of nature that serve as God's agents in this world? Usually the term for angel is “Malakh” which is a messenger either heavenly or earthly. We even have a prophet named, “My Angel or Messenger” Malachi. In Yotzer, that term does not appear. Instead we hear of Seraphim, Ofanim, and Chayot haKodesh, terms for heavenly beings that appear in visions described by Isaiah and Ezekiel. In Isaiah's vision, he is in the Temple in Jerusalem when this vision appears and he sees God Himself on a high and exalted throne. The seraphim join in chorus and sing, “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is filled with His glory.” Ezekiel's vision is much more active. He is in Babylonia and sees God's throne on a kind of chariot, an expression of God's presence even in the Diaspora. There are all kinds of lights and holy beings, the Ofanim and the Chayot Hakodesh and they are singing, “Baruch k'vod Adonay mimkomo, praised is the Glory of the Lord from His place.” These two visions are incorporated into the Kedushah when the Amidah is repeated aloud by the leader. Here they are described and included again in what is known as the Kedushah of Yotzer or by some as the seated Kedushah. Some rabbis felt it was inappropriate to include Kedushah in the Yotzer particularly for individuals to recite it without a minyan. However, a distinction is made, for this is a description of Kedushah rather than a formal recitation of that holy prayer. Nonetheless, in some traditions, the Yotzer prayer omits this section when it is recited by an individual, though that is not the general practice.
After this elaborate and inspiring description of the angels gathering and offering these praises, we come to the concluding paragraph of the prayer. Here God is described through His actions in the world: “For He is unique, doing mighty deeds, creating new life, championing justice, sowing righteousness, reaping victory, bring healing. Awesome in praise, Sovereign of wonders, day after day in His goodness He renews Creation.” Here we quote from the Psalms, from the great Hallel in Psalm 136, “[Praise] the Creator of great lights for His lovingkindness endures forever, ki l'olam chasdo.” In the Sephardic tradition, the chatimah, the closing benediction, comes next. However, most Ashkenazic traditions include one more line, speaking of a different kind of light, the light of redemption. Those who omit this line feel it is out of place in this blessing and needs to be in the blessing of redemption after the Sh'ma instead. However, we pray, ”Or chadash al Tziyon tair, cause a new light to shine upon Zion and may we speedily share a portion of its light. We conclude, “Baruch ata Adonay, Praised are You Lord, Yotzer Hameorot, the Creator of Lights.”
It seems that no matter how much we try to limit our prayers to a single topic at a time, Jews are always praying for redemption, for God's grace for us and for all the world. We are instructed to be a Light of the Nations and it is for that light, the great light hidden away at the time of Creation that we pray and may we all speedily share a portion in that light and through our words and deeds may we serve to bring light to all the world.