Divrei Torah

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January 11, 2019 - Parashat Bo 5779

A D’var Torah for Parashat Bo
By Rabbi Heidi Hoover (’11)

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, we are in the midst of the dramatic story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, when they go from slavery to freedom. Because it is the story we retell at Passover, it is one of the most familiar in the Torah. God frees the Israelites “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Psalm 136:12).

In parashat Bo, the last three of the ten plagues befall the Egyptians: locusts, darkness, and the death of the first-born. The penultimate plague, darkness, seems like it might be less destructive than the other two. After all, it gets dark every night, and we all get through it. But this wasn’t like that regular, natural darkness. This was three solid days of “darkness that can be touched” (Exodus 10:21). “A person could not see his brother or sister, and for three days, a person could not rise from sitting, a person could not move about” (Exodus 10:23).

When I was in high school, a friend who was a black belt took me to his karate studio on a day when no one was there. We went inside the small building, which had no windows, and shut the door. He suddenly turned off all the lights. I’m afraid of the dark, though not as afraid of it now as I was then. It was pitch dark, in a building I wasn’t at all familiar with. My friend was sneaking around, then he’d suddenly make a loud noise to scare me, each time from a different and unexpected direction. I was terrified, and felt paralyzed. I couldn’t move, because I didn’t know where I was, where he was, where the door was. I stayed in one spot and cried until he turned the lights back on. He thought it was funny. Maybe “friend” isn’t quite the right word.

Darkness, especially unexpected, unnatural darkness, unbroken by moon or stars, darkness with no certain end, can be paralyzing. It leaves us unable to see one another. It seems that what our Torah is describing in this plague is physical darkness. But when we speak of darkness, we don’t only mean physical darkness. Darkness is also a powerful metaphor for us—we speak of dark times when we’re in personal difficulty or feel concerned about our political situation.

I want to take a moment to say that we have to be careful using these metaphors of darkness and lightness, because they can bleed into our perceptions of people with darker or lighter skin, and we can view people with darker skin more negatively related to these metaphors. This is something we must guard against.

At the same time, the metaphor is apt and valuable when carefully applied. Someone suffering from depression may feel paralyzed, unable to act to help him- or herself, as if lost in pitch darkness. Psalm 23 speaks of being in the “valley of the shadow of death.” A shadow casts darkness, and I’ve experienced that verse as speaking to how I felt when deep in grief from the loss of my mother 10 years ago. Sometimes when we look at social issues in our nation or our world, we may feel at a loss as to how we might make a difference, and ultimately feel stuck as in darkness, unable to see a path forward.

In Egypt, when the plague of darkness descends, there is no remedy for the Egyptians. They are at the mercy of God, and until the plague lifts after three days, they can do nothing.

What about us? In the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 58, Isaiah speaks of people who seek God. They want to know God and feel near to God. They follow the rules of religion—they show up, they fast on fast days—but it doesn’t work, and they don’t know why.

Isaiah tells them it is because, even as they follow the letter of the religious rules, they continue to be complicit in the oppression of other people. Isaiah says, “On your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high…. No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”

Isaiah continues: “Then shall your light burst through like the dawn…. Then shall your light shine in darkness, and your gloom shall be like noonday.” By speaking of light coming as a result of standing up to end oppression and want, Isaiah tells us that before we do that, we are in darkness, and also that if we don’t do it, we cannot be close to God.

As far as we can tell from the text, the Egyptians stricken by the plague of darkness hadn’t paid much attention to the plight of the Israelites. Oppression can also bring a feeling of darkness; which we read of the Israelites experiencing early in Moses’s relationship with them—he speaks to them, but they can’t hear him, because they’re crushed by cruel bondage. Now the Egyptians experience that darkness, in part because they’re complicit in the oppression.

There are studies that show that when we help others, we receive a positive psychological benefit—it lightens our darkness if we serve others and help to make their lives better.

When we experience the darkness of despair or confusion, let us try not to let the darkness blind us to the suffering of our brothers and sisters, and let us gather our energy to break out of our paralysis to help alleviate a little of that suffering. Let us reach out through the darkness to find the hands of others, and hold them as we grope toward light.

May God help us to find the strength to face our fear of the darkness and bring light to the world, thus helping to fulfill our Jewish calling to be “a light unto the nations.”
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Rabbi Heidi Hoover (AJR ’11) has taught Conversion at AJR. She is the rabbi of B’ShERT: Beth Shalom v’Emeth Reform Temple in Brooklyn, NY.