Posted on January 7, 2022 by Ed Tolman
Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 12:6) holds that after Adam had committed his first sin and experienced his first nightfall, he was filled with dread. He was afraid that the world was blacking out, running down and that he had caused it. He feared that under the cover of darkness, his enemy, the snake, would do him great harm. He felt that the cosmic darkness reflected his own inner darkness. At sunrise, at the end of the first Shabbat, God provided Adam with two flints by which to make fire and the light by which to see.
This weeks’ Torah portion, Parashat Bo, tells of the final three plagues brought upon the Egyptians, finally compelling Pharoah to allow the people of Israel to leave their place of slavery with all they possessed (and even some possessions supposedly borrowed from the Egyptian people) and ends with God’s instructions on the celebration of the holiday of Passover. The parasha is suffused with darkness. Torah tells us that the locusts of the eighth plague were so numerous, that their numbers darkened the land. The darkness that was the ninth plague was so thick and palpable that the Egyptians could not move for three days. The ultimate plague, the death of the first born of the Egyptians occurred at midnight, again under the cover of darkness.
Exodus chapter 10, verses 21-23 reads: “and God said to Moses, ‘ Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched (or felt).’ Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days, People could not see one another and for three days no one could get up from where he was, but the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.”
The Ramban explains that the people could not move because the darkness was physically thick and tangible, It was well beyond the darkness of night, which is made up of air that can absorb the light of morning. This darkness was so totally different that even a lit flare would not make a dent in it.
Midrash Tanchuma tells us that the darkness was so palpable that if you were standing you couldn’t sit and if you were sitting, you couldn’t stand.
We live in metaphorically dark days. The cloud of an epidemic hangs all around us. Our futures seem obscured by the threat of climate change. Respectful relations with our fellow citizens are blocked by political differences and shielded by inherent prejudices. Though we can technically communicate easily through our electronic devices, the ability to understand each other and to really listen to and hear each other appears obstructed. Individually, many are broken in spirit, burdened with life’s difficulties, unable to see beyond the present. Rabbi Avraham Trugman opines that in psychological terms darkness represents a sense of depression, fed by despair and a sense of being alone. In it’s extreme, people can be stuck in a state of physical or emotional paralysis. Like the people in Egypt, we too, with all the challenging burdens, can be immobilized by this darkness, unable or unknowing how to move forward.
Rabbi Isaac Meir Alter, of 19th century Poland, taught that the worst darkness of all is the blindness in which a person will not see another or another’s misery in order to lend relief. Such a person, taught the rebbi, is incapable of moving from his or her place, of growing in heart and soul.
On the other hand, Rabbi Daniel Fink, of Congregation Avavath Beth Israel in Boise Idaho, has written that though the darkness of Parashat Bo is inseparable from devastation and death, the words of this week’s Torah portion remind us that darkness is also the incubator of hope, the place where redemption is born. He reminds us that in Egypt, the Jewish people became a nation. We were delivered in the middle of God’s eternal night of vigil. He says that while it is natural to fear the dark and that nightfall can be frightening, we, like our forebearers in Egypt, seek to grow from our experiences and learn to embrace the liberating power of darkness. It has been said that in a dark time, the eye begins to see (poet Theodore Roethke). Rabbi Fink concludes that out of darkness and through the darkness, comes both liberation and law. Without the night and all of its terrors, there could be no Torah.
We were reminded that every eye has an area of black and white. While we might intuitively think that we see out of the whites of our eyes, we in fact see out of the blacks of our eyes.
The author Doe Zantmata has written that it is only in our darkest hours that we may discover the true strength of the brilliant light within ourselves that can never, ever be dimmed.
We live in dark days, but we still find light and through that light, hope and the way forward. The light comes in many forms, but especially from our fellow human beings who willingly put themselves at risk to bring us out of the darkness. Scientists and doctors and nurses and first responders and frontline workers and military service people and the few courageous politicians who serve country first, and local shop owners and food delivery people and our clergy and temple staff and lay leaders and all caregivers and so many, many others. All who respond, “Hineini.” We find light and hope and the path forward also in our own inner strength and in our faith. May we find light in the darkness. Ken Yehe Retzon.
Guest service leader