Bo: Stuck in the Dark

Copyright 2012  Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

“Moshe 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 all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. “ (Shmot/Exodus 10:22-23)

Good afternoon!

This week the pace quickens in the Exodus narrative: the final plagues bring destruction and darkness, but Pharaoh will not yield. The penultimate plague, darkness, is described as palpable and immobilizing. It is clear from the text, and amplified in the commentaries, that “darkness” doesn’t mean an absence of ordinary light, but something experienced as an inner state as well as an outward reality.

Our friend Rashi explains the plague of darkness with a midrash which imagines that the two descriptions of the darkness are actually sequential. That is, according to Rashi, “people could not see one another” and “for three days no one could get up from where he was” are two different things. In this midrash, there were first three days of darkness in which the Egyptians could not see one another, and then another three days of more intense darkness in which they were stuck in place.

The Conservative Torah commentary Etz Hayim suggests that “the person who cannot see his neighbor is incapable of spiritual growth, incapable of rising from where he is currently,” and while I certainly think that’s true, I think Rashi’s comment is a bit more nuanced. I think Rashi is portraying a nation in moral crisis: after all, the phenomenon of “not seeing one another” has already been true for years. The Egyptians turned away from the oppression of the Israelites, choosing not to see the horror in their midst. The plague of darkness becomes a metaphor for the internal reality of living in a society that is dependent on the oppression of others: we do not see what we don’t want to acknowledge, and then become frozen in place, unable to speak truth to power or push back against a ruler or system whose tyranny will ultimately consume both oppressed and oppressor.

Think of how hard it has been throughout history for good people to effect change, and how easy it is for corruption to take hold when decent people simply look away. Conversely, when change happens, it’s often because people become literally unstuck from their ordinary places: think of Martin Luther King leading assemblies across bridges in the South, or Gandhi and his Salt March, or those who left their homes to camp out in Tahrir Square. These movements made change happen because they forced the world to see and confront injustice. The tragedy of Exodus, repeated over and over in human history, is that Egypt became a society in which human beings were seen not as neighbors but as mere problems to be solved; the enduring truth that Exodus teaches is that such a society eventually crumbles from within.

I think this is why darkness is the final plague before death; the image of darkness evokes a moral and spiritual reality that leads to death. Yet “the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” Light was not lost even in this time of darkness; it’s up to each of us to bring that light, understood as the power of justice and compassion, to places that are darkened by fear and despair.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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