In the opening verses of Parashat Vayeitzei we read of how Yaakov slept as he traveled from his homeland to Charan, and beheld his famous prophetic dream. Rashi (28:11), based on the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 68:10), comments that God had the sun set earlier than it should have so that Yaakov would sleep at this particular site and behold his prophecy there.
The full passage in the Midrash reads as follows:
The Almighty had the ball of the sun set before its time in order to speak to Yaakov in private. This may be compared to a king’s friend who visits him on occasion. The king said, “Extinguish the candles, extinguish the lamps, because I wish to speak with my friend in private.” Similarly, the Almighty had the ball of the sun set before its time in order to speak with Yaakov in private.
Why does the Midrash emphasize God’s desire to speak to Yaakov “in private,” and what is the significance of the analogy to the king putting out the lights when meeting with his close friend?
While dark is commonly associated with gloom and fear, it also offers a special opportunity for focus and concentration. During the daytime hours, when everything around us can be seen, we are prone to distraction. Moreover, before modern-day illumination, most constructive work could be performed only by day, and thus the daytime hours were spent busily tending to one’s activities, taking full advantage of the limited amount of time available for work. The nighttime darkness allowed people to take their minds off the pressures of the workday, and, without illumination, they were able to focus attentively on each other or on their own thoughts and feelings. Darkness seems frightening, but also affords the special opportunity for concentrated thought and contemplation.
The Midrash here expresses the need to “turn out the lights” when we encounter God, when we pray or study. God wants us to “meet” with Him “privately,” without distractions. We are to try, to whatever extent possible, to extinguish all “light” when the time comes for prayer or learning, to take our minds off all that occupies us the rest of the time, so we can devote our full attention and channel all our emotion to the Almighty.
In today’s day and age, we have very little “darkness,” periods of time when we are free from distractions and when we are not rushing to complete more work. Electric lighting and mobile devices have all but eliminated our time for meaningful thought and contemplation. It seems we are always occupied, distracted and busy, without any periods of “darkness” when we can be alone with the people close to us, with God, or with ourselves. When Yaakov left Canaan, it was God who “turned out the lights” and brought darkness so that Yaakov would engage in meaningful, contemplative prayer. In our time, we need to take the initiative and occasionally “turn out the lights” so we can properly focus our minds on what’s truly important to us.