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Torah Reflections

Bo: Plagued by Darkness

This week’s reading, Bo/Come, describes the last three plagues imposed by God on Egypt including the plague of darkness. The darkness was in some ways the subtlest of the plagues, and the text makes it clear that it was not ordinary darkness:

YHVH said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky, and there will be darkness on the land of Egypt, and the darkness will become darker.” Moses stretched out his hand toward the heavens, and there was thick darkness throughout the whole land of Egypt for three days. People could not see each other, and no one could rise from their place for three days. But for all of the Children of Israel there was light in their dwellings. (Exodus 10:21-23)

Consider God’s words in the first verse cited above: “…the darkness will become darker.” Most commentators take this to mean something more than 72 hours of night; the darkness became even darker than night. No moon, no stars, no ambient light. This is the darkness of extended sensory deprivation, which has the potential to cause psychological effects like anxiety, hallucinations and bizarre thinking.

But Bo has even more to say about darkness

If that wasn’t bad enough, Bo goes on to tell us that the darkness was so intense that the Egyptians couldn’t see one another, but that he Israelites had light.

The Gerer Rebbe comments that darkness in which we cannot see one another is the worst darkness of all. When we are under the influence of this plague, he teaches, we are unable or unwilling to notice the distress of our neighbors and help them.

Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank z”l (drawing on Rabbi Dovid Moshe Friedman of Chortkov), on the other hand, comments on the end of verse 23 in which the Israelites are described as having light in their dwellings even as the Egyptians dwelt in darkness. This, he teaches, is to remind us that we each live in a different place. No two people perceive the identical light the same way. Each of us has light according to how and where we live.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these two understandings of the plague of darkness. If the darkness is dependent on one’s place and if it keeps us from seeing one another, then these two teachers are pointing to something more than physical darkness. I’d like to suggest that they are pointing instead to a kind of psychological darkness rooted in fear. 

Through my meditation practice, I’ve come to see how certain mind states color my perception of the world. When I’m feeling content, shiny objects and cool gadgets are far less likely to catch my eye. When I’m happy, I tend to feel safe and loved. When I feel optimistic, I see possibilities everywhere. But when I’m afraid, just about everything (and everyone) seems dark and dangerous. In other words, I perceive the light (or it’s absence) differently depending on the “place” in which I’m living. And when I’m living in fear’s darkness, the worst darkness of all, it is true that I am unable to “see” others or feel compassion for them.

The Egyptians were no doubt living in fear by this point (after all, this is the ninth plague), but the Children of Israel had begun to believe that they might yet be freed from bondage. No wonder the Egyptians are described as being plagued by darkness and unable to see one another. And no wonder the Israelites had light.

I don’t know whether there really was a prolonged absence of light that inspired Bo’s words, but I do know that the United States is currently experiencing a plague of darkness in the form of fear. Many of us are losing the ability to see the “other”, even when they are our neighbors. And in our blindness, many of us are losing our capacity for compassion and right action.

I have to make an effort to preserve my light in the face of the fear mongering. I work to find a balance between staying well informed and sane. I’ve culled my Facebook feed, and I’m working on my news addiction. I find ways to learn about what’s right with the world and where the light still shines. And I work and pray, daily, for the end of the darkness that threatens to destroy our hearts and our worlds.

May you be blessed…

May you be strengthened in your compassion and may your eyes have light. May you recognize the conditions that breed darkness and liberate yourself from them. And may we all be emissaries of light in this time of gathering darkness.

Ameyn, keyn yehi ratzon. Amen, may it be so.


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