Contact Us

Can Faith Survive the Darkest Night?

Aug 29, 2023

Jerusalem's Old City walls at night (

יְ֭הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵ֣י יְשׁוּעָתִ֑י יוֹם־צָעַ֖קְתִּי בַלַּ֣יְלָה נֶגְדֶּֽךָ׃

Hashem, God of my deliverance, when I cry out in the night before You,

a-do-NAI e-lo-HAY y'-shu-a-TEE, yom-tza-a-K'-tee ba-la-Y'-la ne-g'-DE-kha

Psalms 88:2

When your world is crumbling around you, when all you see is darkness, and when every prayer you offer seems to echo into an endless void—where is God? This is a question many of us have asked, and it’s a question the Psalmists asked thousands of years ago too, particularly in Psalm 88.

In a book that usually leads us on a journey from sorrow to jubilation, Psalm 88 stands out. Here, there is no final turn towards hope, no redemption, no high note to end on. Notably, this psalm opens with a musical term: “al machalat l’anot,” referencing a musical instrument. “Machalat,” however, is derived from the Hebrew word for illness, and “l’anot” from the word which means affliction. Why does this psalm of such darkness begin with a musical reference related to pain and suffering?

Joseph ben Hayim Jabez, a 15th-century Spanish-Jewish theologian, interpreted these words as a testament to the suffering endured by Jews during their long history of exile. Yet, there is more to it. Psalm 88, described as a maskil is intended to enlighten. But enlighten us as to what, exactly?

The psalmist in Psalm 88 doesn’t just cry out to God; he almost accuses God of abandoning him, drowning him in suffering:

“You have put me at the bottom of the Pit, in the darkest places, in the depths. Your fury lies heavy upon me; You afflict me with all Your breakers. Selah.” (Psalm 88:6-8)

There’s no sugar-coating here, and no grand epiphany about God’s grace. The psalm ends as bleakly as it begins:

“Your fury overwhelms me; Your terrors destroy me. They swirl about me like water all day long; they encircle me on every side. You have put friend and neighbor far from me and my companions out of my sight.” (Psalm 88:17-19)

What are we to make of this?

In his haunting book “Eish Kodesh” (Holy Fire), Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Grand Rabbi of Piaseczno, Poland, who perished in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, wrestled with the notion of God’s role during immense suffering. Initially, he viewed the Nazis as instruments for God’s corrective punishment. However, as the atrocities escalated, he realized that the sufferings had crossed a boundary, dimming the very possibility of prayer, repentance and return to God.

So why does Psalm 88 end on such a dark note? The purpose of the psalm is to show that even in the worst moments, we should not be afraid to voice our pain and doubts to God. In the words of Rabbi Shapira, “At least in the depths of his heart, every Jew must shout out to God about it.” Expressing our anguish and questioning our faith isn’t a sign of its demise; rather, it’s a part of the complicated, often difficult process of engaging with it. And indeed, this psalm of pain and suffering begins with a cry to God:

“Hashem, God of my deliverance, when I cry out in the night before You, let my prayer reach You; incline Your ear to my cry.” (Psalms 88:2-3)

Sometimes, life doesn’t offer a resolution. Sometimes, like in Psalm 88, the darkness doesn’t lift—and perhaps it’s not meant to, at least not immediately. What we learn from this seemingly forsaken psalm, and from figures like the Grand Rabbi of Piaseczno, is that it’s okay to question, to doubt, and to feel abandoned. In doing so, we’re not turning away from God or faith; we’re turning towards an honest, vulnerable relationship with the Divine.

So when you find yourself asking, “Where is God?” remember that you’re in the company of generations who’ve asked the same thing. Sometimes, the questioning itself, the struggle, is the answer. And maybe, just maybe, that’s where we find a sliver of enlightenment in the darkest night.

Related Names and Places:

Relate Bible Verses: Chapter 88

Spread the love