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Bo 5781

01/22/2021 11:28:44 AM


Yael Keller


Stepping into the Light

In this week’s parsha, we read about the last three plagues - including the final two, choshech/darkness and makat bechorot/death of the firstborn.  Many commentators note the plague of darkness feels out of order in the sequence of the ten plagues.  So far, the plagues have grown in terror and impact, yet the plague of darkness feels more like a bother than a plague. Why is it the penultimate plague? What is so scary about being in the dark?

Most years, I would agree with the question. This year, though, I could identify with the Egyptian experience of choshech.  The plague is described as a thick darkness that could be felt and which immobilized those who experienced it. It was isolating; the Egyptians could not see each other - לֹֽא־רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו. Over the last ten months especially, I have felt the darkness close in as we have been isolated from one another - אִישׁ from אָחִיו.  Many of us have felt the thickness, the paralyzing nature of such a darkness. The darkness of a pandemic and the instability many feel on a national level is real and oppressive and a true, modern-day plague.

Watching the inauguration on Wednesday, I was inspired by Amanda Gorman, Poet Laureate. I was most struck by her use of the metaphors of light and shade.  She started her poem by asking where we can find light in what feels like “never ending shade.”  In her words, I heard my initial impression from this week’s parsha - the plague of choshech doesn’t feel that foreign to many of us these days.  We are stuck in the shade.

Reb Nachman of Breslav reassures us that often when we are stuck in the shade, at our darkest hour, we are almost ready to step into the light. He writes that “[j]ust as the plague of darkness immediately preceded the redemption from Egypt, so too, the darkest hour always comes right before the dawn.”  Part of the exodus process, then, is to confront the darkness and return to the light. Of course, this is a process that is easier said than done.  How do we escape the darkness, step out of the shade and return to the light?

Reb Hanoch of Alexander, a 19th century chassidic rebbe, explains that the darkness of choshech is a plague of the Egyptian’s own making.  The Egyptian society was selfish and self-centered. No one looked out for their neighbor. The isolation, the inability to see one another was not the symptom of darkness--it was the cause. Their darkness was spiritual. To return to the light, we must recognize one another, truly see each other. In fact the gemara in Brachot suggests it is only light enough to say kriyat shma in the morning, to engage in mitzvot, when one can see one’s friend from four amot/cubits away.  The light only comes when we acknowledge one another and hold ourselves accountable as a society. By caring for one another, we can overcome the darkness of plague by filling it with light.

Ms. Gorman describes this beautifully:
When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it for there is always light if only we're brave enough to see it, if only we're brave enough to be it.

Shabbat Shalom - wishing everyone a shabbat filled with the light of community.

Thu, July 25 2024 19 Tammuz 5784